Andrew and Agnes hate everything we’ve done. This spring, I tore out some lilac bushes and planted a vegetable garden and put herbs and leaf lettuce in the planters out front, and Agnes broke down sobbing about it. They drop by almost every Sunday after church just to criticize our work. At every family gathering, we have to hear how Emily would’ve hated it and how we should have waited before “tearing her house apart.” We’re sick of it. I never promised to maintain the house like a shrine. Even my dad said we should’ve waited, even though he knows we have to get it all done before our October wedding because my fiance’s family is coming to stay with us.
My dad considers his cousins like siblings, and I want to be kind. But it’s been almost a year, and they need to stop thinking of it as my great-aunt’s house. If they hate seeing what we’re doing, why not stay away? Can you help me with a script for talking to Andrew and Agnes?
Not Our House: Next time Andrew and Agnes drop by to visit sit down with them and say:
“Maybe you don’t realize how hurtful your criticism has been. I’ve lived in this house for 10 years and love it as much as you do. I’m sorry you don’t like the changes I’m making with my fiancé but the house really needs updating. “Joe” and I are making it our home together. And that’s what Aunt Emily would have loved to see happen. She understood that life moves on. She never said anything to me about not wanting it to change after she was gone. So please don’t make any more negative comments about the work we’re doing. I love this place and so does Joe. That’s really what matters.”
You’ll have stated your feelings in a respectful way and drawn the boundary lines. The next time you hear a critical comment or someone bursts into tears, just smile and change the subject. Do not engage. It will happen more than once until they realize that you are moving on despite their opinions. I’m guessing that as time goes on your cousins will feel free to opine on other things in your life (child rearing, career choices, etc.), so it’ll be good for them to learn now that you can’t be pushed into conforming with their expectations. Good luck and congratulations on your marriage!
Not Our House: Unfortunately, you’re seeking a rational solution to an irrational problem. Profound grief doesn’t make sense; it just is what it is. Andrew and Agnes would hate anything that further removes their mother and their memory of her.
She put up the wallpaper and planted the lilacs. You shouldn’t be expected to maintain a shrine, but it might be helpful if you recognized their loss by trying to preserve anything that was dear to Emily. Is there any wallpaper left? Perhaps you could frame a sample of it for each of them. Any lilac bushes left that you could transplant at one of their homes? You get the idea.
In the meantime, you could say to them that you know it has been difficult losing Emily and you miss her as well. Express your hope to make as many new and wonderful memories as Emily did in her admirable lifetime.
Not Our House: Less than year is a perfectly understandable time to still be grieving a beloved sister and mother. Was this the family home the kids grew up in? Then it’s doubly understandable that they’re experiencing a second kind of death as they see their childhood home change. While you don’t need to apologize for living your life, I don’t think trying to change anyone’s mind is fruitful. It’s time to kindly close the door on further discussion.
The next time this topic comes up with various relatives, start with compassion: “I know it’s tough to see things change at the house.” Then move onto something like, “I also cherish Emily’s memory, but she had no expectation that I would preserve the home as a museum to her. I trust that she would support my pursuit of a happy life, which means living with my fiancé in advance of our wedding and making changes to our shared home. I’d like to drop any further discussion on this topic, please.” And then do it.
Refuse to engage with the subject. Turn the conversation, end phone calls, leave the room and maybe be busy for a few Sundays to break the cycle of habitual shrine visiting cousins intent on raining on the parade. If you can pivot house conversations to warm remembrances of Emily you may actually soothe the root of what is likely driving all this: raw grief misplaced on an easy target.
Every week, we ask readers to answer a question submitted to Carolyn Hax’s live chat or email. Read last week’s installment here. New questions are typically posted on Fridays, with a Monday deadline for submissions. Responses are anonymous unless you choose to identify yourself and are edited for length and clarity.