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Dear Alice,

My husband and I are extremely anxious about a situation that has exploded into our lives this past year. We are the parents of a 15-year-old daughter who is being exposed to troubling internet material. We know she watched a series (“13 Reasons Why”) that showed the suicide of a high school girl and the tapes she left behind for people who harmed her. This was the latest in a number of things we’ve learned our daughter has encountered on the internet and through social media.

We try not to intrude in her life, but we are struggling daily to control our strong impulse to protect her. We want to talk with her about what she is watching and reading, but we don’t know how to approach her. She balks at our efforts to communicate about anything she views as private. We feel helpless to do anything.

We have asked many of our friends how they are handling this situation. Most have said they are ignoring it, but that is not our style. We believe our daughter is too young to learn about such things, and we believe we have a responsibility to do something. We understand that we can’t control everything in her life, but how do we cope with this ourselves and also be helpful to her?

Burdened

Dear Burdened,

Many parents have expressed great concern about the TV series (to which Netflix has added a warning), and are trying to learn how to be helpful to their child while managing their own anxiety about the material. I am pleased you recognize that you have a responsibility to talk with your child about what she has seen. I recommend you watch the series in order to have a full understanding of the issues raised. By knowing you’ve watched it, your daughter is likely to feel comforted and respected because you’ve taken the time to help her sort through this experience and her feelings about it.

Initially, she may avoid any conversation with you because she feels awkward, but over time you may find her willing to share her reactions with you, particularly when you don’t push her to talk. Much of what is portrayed in the series is embarrassing for a teenager to address with her parents, but she may share some of her own troubling experiences or those of her friends.

Do not expect much openness. The point of your conversations is to let her know you will always be available to her, you will never dismiss her concerns, and you will get her help if she needs it. Review with her who else among your family or friends, her school, a religious institution, can be counted on to be supportive if she is having difficulty. If she opens up to you about anything, you can help her problem-solve as well. Remind her how she has handled other difficulties in her life.

Many experts have faulted “13 Reasons Why” for romanticizing suicide. Emphasize that suicide is never a solution. Ask her whether she agrees with this criticism. Listen carefully and respectfully to anything she says. If she is receptive, tell her what you have observed about the series that concerns you. You might ask her to imagine another ending that saves the girl. A website, www.jedfoundation.org, has talking points that may be particularly helpful to you in this process.

Raising children today brings great challenges. Try to look at this situation as an opportunity to develop a closer relationship with your daughter. Decades ago, most parents did not know how to have these conversations.

Although children are exposed to things that were generally unheard of in the past, there is now more information and research on how to parent effectively, how to treat depression, how to build resilience in children, and the impact of sexual assault, drug use, and bullying. See yourselves as partnering with your child in managing all the stress that growing up entails.

 

Alice

Moving On After the Death of a Spouse

Dear Alice,

My husband of 35 years died suddenly 10 months ago after having major surgery that we were told was successful. After leaving the hospital to return home and change clothes, I received a call from his doctor telling me that my husband was dead. I was devastated. I still am.

Both of my adult children are married and have children of their own. We are a close family, and my husband was a wonderful husband, father, and grandfather. We made a good life for ourselves, and now the loneliness is unbearable.

I am struggling with the loss, and one of the hardest things about it is how little friends seem to understand what I am going through. Few ask me how I am doing. Some people, including my children, have told me that since almost a year has passed, I should be getting beyond my grief.

I am hurt by their comments and feel misunderstood in a way that is adding to my pain. I often react in anger, which has caused some people to stop contacting me.

Do you have any suggestions that can help me deal with all of their insensitivity?

— In Pain

Dear In Pain,

I am saddened about your husband’s death. Dealing with loss is one of the most misunderstood and complicated issues for human beings. For many widowed people, grief is a very emotionally painful process. Adding to the pain is the way friends and family often react over time to one’s continued expressions of sadness. What seems like a lack of caring is more likely to be their difficulty in how best to deal with your bereavement. Even people who have been through a similar loss may make statements that are hard to accept.

Understanding this may help you put their comments in perspective. Most likely these people, including your children, want you to feel better. There are some people who will not experience the depth of a loss that others will because they have not had a deep attachment to their deceased; therefore, even a widowed person might say something insensitive. Others may have gone through a painful recovery from such a loss and won’t want to relive it through your loss. In addition, we are rarely taught what to say at such times and may speak out of ignorance.

Your children are most likely also grieving for their father and are trying to do what they perceive society expects of them, to get on with their lives. They probably want to normalize their own lives by not conveying their own despair at the unexpected death of their father. Having a young family helps them focus on childrearing and being a spouse. Your loss does not have these same distractions to focus on. Also, your children have not lived exclusively with you and your husband in recent years, I suspect. They are also likely to be worried about you and don’t want to add to your grief by initiating a conversation about how you are doing. Certainly you want the love and support of your children. Trying to understand them better at this time will help you remain close.

Getting angry at what you perceive as the insensitivity of people will only add to your sense of isolation. Having high expectations for others to understand what you are experiencing will only intensify your sadness and loneliness. If you view other people as doing the best they can with your loss and try to accept their limitations, you may feel more comfortable with their attempts to soothe you.

We can increase our isolation after loss by our hostility toward people who may offer us friendship, however awkwardly. Their alienation from us becomes an additional loss. Give yourself all the time you need to grieve and forgive attempts by others to care for you in ways that may seem inadequate or insensitive. Over time you may come to appreciate these same people who were imperfect but trying to care for you in their own way. Even their careless comments will recede in your memory. Ultimately they will be part of your healing process and celebrate your return to life.

You and your husband likely made many decisions together, and shared family involvement, interests, friendships, and intimacy. Your adjustment to the end of these aspects of 35 years together will take time as you create a different life for yourself. This does not mean ever forgetting your husband. Your loving relationship with him will become a part of the fabric of your new life. You will find other pleasures and hopefully begin to enjoy family and friends again.

Best wishes.

— Alice

Dear Alice,

As we approach Mother’s Day I am struggling with a family situation that feels anything but celebratory of. Our daughter is married to a man who appears to the world as a caring and religious person. However, he treats my husband and me as if we were unimportant to him. When we go to their home for our weekly visit to see our grandchildren (it is almost an hour drive away and not easy to do each week), he is usually on his computer and doesn’t even look up. I always go over to him to say hello, but my husband now refuses to.

We have been very good to our son-in-law and have fully accepted him into our family. This mostly affects my husband who is the stepfather and feels that he matters even less than I do. My husband no longer wants to be with them. Usually we celebrate Mother’s Day together. Going out for dinner has been our tradition. I have asked my husband to attend this dinner but he does not want to go.

Our son-in-law, an only child, is very close to his parents who live part of the year nearby and part out West. I suspect that he resents us, but I don’t know why. He does everything for his parents when they are in town. He even helped renovate their apartment. Sadly, when we ask for something simple, he is always too busy to help us.

I don’t want to make trouble with my daughter who seems to adore her husband and has never criticized him to me. She lets him make most of their family decisions, and I fear that he could limit our contact with our grandchildren if we are not careful.

Do you have any suggestions on how I can convince my husband to come to the Mother’s Day dinner?

— Ignored

Dear Ignored,

Certainly things have gotten quite tense as a result of your son-in-law’s lack of civility toward you. Your description of him suggests that he knows how to behave better than this. He is exhibiting barely suppressed anger when he doesn’t acknowledge you.

It’s hard to know what’s on your son-in-law’s mind. He may be holding onto some situation that occurred early on in your relationship. He may resent that his own parents do not live nearby throughout the year. Either of these two explanations or other possibilities may explain why he is acting out in poor treatment of you and your husband.

Doing nothing about your son-in-law’s behavior is risky since your husband is terribly hurt, and his refusal to participate in future family gatherings will certainly have a serious impact on your family. How you handle this now may improve the situation.

I recommend that you speak with your daughter about it in a very non-threatening way. Ask her if there is a problem since you have observed that her husband has seemed very busy whenever you come to visit. Be open to anything that she has to say, even if it is painful to hear. Do not mention the inequity between how he treats you versus how he treats his own parents since this may cause his defensiveness when she talks with him. Your daughter may not have observed any of his behavior. Hopefully, she will ask her husband if he is unhappy about something regarding her parents.

Perhaps your son-in-law will recognize that there is a consequence to his bad behavior in that it has been noted. Her mentioning this to him may cause him to think about it and reevaluate how to behave toward you. He may, however, choose to ignore what your daughter says and continue to behave rudely.

You can’t change your son-in-law’s behavior and certainly your confronting him directly would be disastrous. Since you want to stay close to your daughter and grandchildren, continue to visit and have low expectations for any meaningful contact with your son-in-law.

Ask your husband to attend your Mother’s Day gathering this year, and every year. You want your grandchildren to experience the joy of having family celebrations that create beautiful memories and honor important members of the family. Mother’s Day is such a day.

Families are complicated and take work to maintain. Encourage your husband to keep the family together in spite of this challenge. Perhaps you will have a surprisingly good Mother’s Day after all.

— Alice