I’m asking this on behalf of my mother, who is very interested in reading printouts of stories on your site, after I introduced her to them, but has yet to master even opening a web browser (she has a general and all-encompassing mistrust of technology that was invented after 1940).
My mother has been haunted (seriously, devastated) this past year by a situation with her sister (my aunt) in which she doesn’t believe herself to be at fault but is unsure and would like to be either reassured or set straight. Be warned, this is not a happy story.
A tiny bit of back story first … when I was born, my mother asked my aunt to be my godmother. She refused, on the grounds that it would be hypocritical of her to be part of a religious ceremony when she didn’t believe in God, and had no religious affiliation. My mother accepted this with no ill-will, knowing if I ever needed my aunt she’d still be there for me. But this is important to the story.
One other thing is that just before she fell pregnant with my sister, my mother suffered a miscarriage. She still cries to think of it, even thirty years later. This is also semi-important.
Now my cousin (my aunt’s daughter) went through years of IVF, and last year she finally fell pregnant with twins, both boys. She lives miles away, but my mother and I sent cards and gifts when we learned about the twins (my mother makes hand-knitted blankets for every new addition to our extended family, and these were sent about four months into the pregnancy, and I received a thank-you email, which I passed on).
At around six months, the babies were both born prematurely, and one passed away that same day. We were informed of this by my aunt, via email (she lives in another country, so she often communicates with my mother through me), which said her daughter was too distressed and focused on her other tiny, premature baby to be in communication with anyone. We thought this was absolutely right, and I emailed back that my thoughts were with them all.
My mother, being unable to email and absolutely crushed by the news, called (while I was there) and left a message. In this message she said the following (this is almost exactly word for word … we know because my mother hates answer phones and always writes out what she’ll say before she leaves a message, so she doesn’t leave things out).
Hello A (my aunt), I’m so sorry to hear about S (my cousin) and M (her husband)’s terrible loss. It’s not the same, but I do know a tiny fraction of what S is feeling, and all of my love is with her and M. I know you don’t share my faith, but I’m praying for you all, and especially for baby K. Please pass on my love to S and M, and my regards to B (my uncle).
Now, a tense few days followed, and then came the awful news of the death of the second twin. Needless to explain how we all felt, and my mother took it particularly hard. But what she took the hardest was the email my aunt sent (to my email address) informing us of the news. It goes as follows …
Monday had been a very promising day with the doctors making quite extensive and detailed plans for K’s future. In the early hours of Tuesday morning a sudden deterioration in Ks condition occurred and despite some very intensive care he was unable to regain any of the ground he had lost so rapidly. He passed away quietly in the arms of S and M and is now at peace. S and M asked us to let everyone know. They are devastated and couldn’t do so themselves. They will need some time to come to terms with all of this and they’re sure you will understand that they cannot face conversations at the moment.
P.S. No doubt you thought you were being kind with your ‘little message’ but we are hurt and angered by your behaviour. We may not attend church as often as your holier-than-thou selves, but we believe that our grandsons are with god, and we won’t have you questioning it. We are mourning the loss of not one but two grandchildren, and you have only made this time more painful. You of all people should know that. Please keep your opinions to yourself.
It’s likely I would never have passed on this last part of the message to my mother (I know that’s wrong, but I knew it would destroy her), but by the time I reached the venomous part, I had already started reading it aloud. My mother broke down in tears, and could barely speak for the better part of an hour, mortified that she’d said something to hurt her sister at this time. We both looked back over the message she left, and to this day neither of us think it’s phrased offensively. Is it?
She certainly didn’t mean to cause pain by her remark about my aunt not being religious … she had good reason to believe it, after what happened with my own christening. And this isn’t a long standing issue … religion has never been a sore point between members of our family. Some are Catholic, some protestant, some atheist, and none of us care or question anyone else’s beliefs. It’s never even come up! FYI, we could never question the babies’ place in heaven … it’s sickening to even think of it!
In my personal opinion, I think my aunt was suffering a horrible loss, and needed an outlet for some steam, and my mother was it. I can’t blame her for lashing out, I just wish she hadn’t. I’ve explained this point of view, and told my mother numerous times that she can’t keep beating herself up about it, but she is now so terrified to speak to my aunt, in case she does further damage, that she has me send most of her communications for her, proofreading them first for anything that might cause pain.
She apologised profusely, and was given only a curt reply, detailing the funeral plans. Since then, there has been little contact with my aunt, though we’ve tried several times. On my mother’s birthday she sent a six-word email saying happy birthday. That’s all. We remain in contact with my cousin.
Please let us know if that message would have caused offense for any of you. I feel responsible for this whole thing too, since I was there when the message was penned and didn’t see anything wrong with it. I know Mom genuinely meant it with nothing but love.
P.S. I know it doesn’t make the story any less sad, but I do want to say that a year later my cousin is now pregnant again with a baby girl, who is past the premature stages and about ready to arrive. We are delighted for S and M, and even though it doesn’t take away their pain, it goes some way to making life seem liveable again. 1011-11
Death of loved ones is one of the most stressful situations a person can endure and under such pressure, people pop revealing the messiness inside of them. Any superficial courtesies and facades are ripped off when death comes knocking. Your aunt lashed out in her sorrow at the one person she probably knew she could get away with behaving that way…your mother, her sister. Anger can be a part of the grieving process and your aunt directed hers inappropriately to the wrong target because your mom was a safe target.
The only possible phrasing I read that *might* be misconstrued was the prayer “especially for the (deceased) baby”. Your aunt had to have read a lot more into that to assume it meant praying for the baby’s soul to be released from Purgatory quickly and into Heaven. It’s a stretch for her to presume that is what your mother meant by that. The context of the phrase, surrounded by condolences and empathy, indicates that only kindness and good thoughts were intended.
Your aunt is what would be referred to as a “secondary mourner”. The twins’ parents are the primary mourners. If you have remained in contact with them and they bear you or your mother no ill will, consider that the persons most eligible to be offended by your comments do not appear to be offended at all. Continue building on that relationship with S&M with expressions of affection, congratulations, and interest in theirs and their new daughter’s lives. Don’t cut off Aunt yet but continue to woo her with communications. It may take years to reconcile this but it does happen.
And please pass on to your mother that sometimes we have to rest in the knowledge that we intended no harm, that we did the best we knew how to do and that the problem truly does lie with the other person who bears a responsibility to not take up offenses easily.