Dilemma: my children don't like to talk about their late mother

Katharine Whitehorn / 13 April 2016

A reader is saddened by his children's unwillingness to talk about their late mother and wonders why they don't like to mention her in front of him.



Dilemma: my children don't talk about their late mother

I was married for many decades until my wife died about a year ago.

My adult son and daughter visit me often and I love them very much. However, I have noticed that they don't like to talk about their mother.

I miss her terribly and would like to remember the happy times we shared as a family, but our children never seem to want to talk about her at all.

Is it because they feel they might upset me, or them, or 'lower the tone' when we're having a nice day?

I wish I could understand why they don't – or won't – talk about their late mother.

Katharine Whitehorn's advice

We pride ourselves, these days, on living in a free and adventurous society; there are fewer hard and fast rules or rigid patterns. 

On the whole, this gives us more flexibility and a better chance of doing things in the way we choose. The downside is that there are demanding situations where, instead of blindly following what’s always been done, there’s a lot of uncertainty about how we should behave. And because it doesn’t happen every day, we’re particularly uncertain about how we should tackle death. 

You can look up what to do about funerals and ashes and letters of condolence, but how you actually talk and cope with death on a day-to-day basis is another matter.

A lot of people do feel that it is hurtful to raise the subject of a dead loved one, but mostly they are quite wrong. I have a friend who, after her husband died, really only felt comfortable with people who had known him, with whom she could talk about him and share memories, and most of us love to have other people remind us of the life we once had. 

Dante, I’m sorry to say, was wrong when he said nothing was worse than remembering happiness when you’re miserable: mostly it helps. 

There are certainly stages, when you’re coming to terms with a loss, when you positively need to talk. It’s often, I suspect, those who were less close to the person who has died who feel embarrassed – they certainly do when a widow indulges in a gush of operatic sentimentality, but many of the good old British stiff-upper-lip types are just hugely embarrassed at any open show of emotion. 

I think you ought to initiate conversations about your late wife and simply force your children to talk too. Then, if there actually is a reason they’re holding back, they may express it. But Joyce Grenfell was surely right when she urged in her poem that her friends should not “Speak in a Sunday voice/ But be the usual selves/ That I have known.”

Related: how to behave around the bereaved

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