After Death, Changing My Relationship with My Mother-in-Law

April 29, 2019

6 min read


It’s never too late to make the relationship better.

My mother-in-law and I never really saw eye-to-eye.

We both tried very hard but we were from different planets. She preferred Canyon Ranch while I preferred Dude Ranch. She longed for a Picasso and I a Monet; she loved New York City and I loved the Virginia countryside. But we did have one thing in common: our love for her son.

As the first daughter-in-law in the family, we were both entering new territory. She did her best to welcome me into the family and I did my best to be a part of the family. Yet the dinner table conversations were often uncomfortable for me. Talking about the neighbors, politics or making fun of learning about Judaism were common discussions. I was uncertain how to respond.

As the first three grandchildren were born, I relegated myself to watching over them in lieu of the dinner conversation. I was relieved and the family seemed happy someone was babysitting. This resolution worked until occasions arose where the kids could not come along. I had no escape.

I tried everything from smiling politely during religious or political discussions, to excusing myself for not feeling well, to stating my opinions with facts to back them up. None of these strategies were satisfactory. Most of the time, I arrived home feeling bullied and reluctant to ever return to a family dinner. But there were so many birthdays, anniversaries and holidays providing reasons for visiting Grandma.

One night when I was pregnant and we had been invited to dinner, I warned my mother-in-law in advance that the smell of fish literally made me gag, so please do not have fish. Guess what she made for dinner? You guessed it. Fish. I am sure she didn’t mean it; her second son was a vegetarian and she probably forgot about me and made something that he would like. Since I literally couldn’t stomach being in the house I went home before the meal.

I know our hearts were in the right place, we just saw the world in different ways. We were oil and water, pure and simple. But we both tried hard for many, many years because it was important for the family.

Shortly after she passed away, I received a visitor at my door telling me that it was my mother-in-law’s wish that I did not attend her funeral. I decided that the most respectful thing I could do for her was to honor her wish and I did not attend. I explained this to my children but they were naturally confused. It was a hurtful day for all, but we tried to put it behind us.

My father had passed away a few months before my mother-in-law and I had been attending the daily morning minyan for him. I knew that I was the only one who would say Kaddish for him and it gave me some time each day to feel my father’s presence who I mourned with every fiber in my being.

The Kaddish Prayer says nothing about death; it’s about our devotion to God. It reaffirms that even though our most precious love has been taken from us, we know that everything that God does is for the good. Through the Kaddish prayer the soul of the deceased is elevated, and the prayer helps the departed to go through the process of cleansing for the mistakes they made in their lives.

Over time, reciting Kaddish in shul made me feel closer to God and to my father, and to the “minyan men” as well who did their best to comfort and console me following the morning service with coffee and a bagel. The Kaddish prayer itself became like a blanket of comfort to me. It kept my father and me together.

Then one morning it occurred to me: who was saying Kaddish for my mother-in-law? No one in the family was observant and I was sure that no one was praying for her. I was already in shul and there was no reason why I should not have her in mind when reciting Kaddish as well. So in addition to thinking about my beloved father, I also began to spend some time each morning thinking about my mother-in-law.

I had no inkling of the transformation I was going to experience. Saying Kaddish each day, thinking about my relationship with her, I shared the disappointment that I had that we didn’t get along better. Soon I began to recall specific events that I wanted to apologize for, or specific uncomfortable exchanges that we had. I mentioned some of these memories in my prayers.

Throughout this process, I felt an incredible change in myself. I began to like my mother-in-law more and I began to forgive her and I felt forgiven by her. Throughout the process of prayer, I felt that we had forged an entirely new relationship based on forgiveness and understanding. She was really a lovely lady who never meant any harm at all. The prayers that I said on her behalf benefitted me tremendously. I was able to let go of so much pain and I hope that together, her soul felt free.

Now, years later, when I think about my mother-in-law, those painful events are far in the distant past, almost erased from my memory. I learned a valuable lesson: even after someone passes away, it’s never too late to make the relationship better. We can change our memories, we can change events that took place and how we think about them. We can ease the journey for those who die by praying for them.

Now when I think of my mother-in-law, I smile. She was my children’s grandmother and their dad’s mother and she did the best she could. I am grateful to her for helping me to find peace with our relationship and to realize that we are all connected during life and after death. It is never too late to mend a broken relationship or a broken heart.

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