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Heavy Meddle: My Grieving Aunt Is A Pariah, Should I Reach Out To Her?

Her aunt lost two partners in less than two years and wound up ostracized by her family. (Ben White/ Unsplash)
Her aunt lost two partners in less than two years and wound up ostracized by her family. (Ben White/ Unsplash)
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Dear Steve,

I'm not close to most of my father's many siblings, but I always had a special place in my heart for his youngest brother, Mark, and Mark's wife, Lauri. I was also fond of, but not as close with, my uncle Peter and his wife, Joan.

Sadly, a few years ago, Mark and Joan both died of cancer within a week of each other. My aunt Lauri was understandably heartbroken: she and Mark were soul mates, and the two couples were best friends, often going on road trips as a group.

I've always loved Lauri and Mark; they were a comforting presence when I was in college far from my parents. The entire family seemed to love her, too, but about six months after Mark and Joan's deaths, Lauri began dating Peter, and all the remaining siblings aside from my dad flipped out. I was delighted by their relationship, and I think the rest of the siblings were coming to accept it, but unfortunately, Peter passed away after they'd been dating for a little over a year.

My father's side of the family, who always said, "We'd adopt Lauri if you divorced her, Mark," now refuses to speak to her and gossip about her terribly in the small community in which the four of them and the surviving siblings live.

Lauri doesn't deal with death very well, but it's been two or three years, and I really miss my aunt. My father has remained neutral but has criticized (to me) some of Lauri's actions after Peter's death and gently suggested I should also ignore her, and so I wonder: Can I reach out to this woman for whom I still hold so many fond feelings? Would it make my father's life worse when his gossipy siblings find out I've reached out to this incredible woman who's now the family pariah? What should I do?

Best,
The Loving and Confused Niece

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Dear LCN,

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I’m confused, too.

I feel like I’m missing some crucial information here. What, exactly, has Lauri done to engender so much resentment? This is a woman who suffered the death of her beloved husband at a young age, then 18 months later, the death of her boyfriend. I can’t imagine how painful such losses must have been for her.

I literally mean that: I cannot imagine so much loss in my life. Neither can you, I suspect. Nor can any of the relatives who are currently treating her as a pariah. I don’t understand how they feel they have any right to judge Lauri. They haven’t walked in her shoes.

But my confusion is more fundamental: Why are they judging her in the first place? Why aren’t they doing everything they can to support this grieving woman? Your relatives once admired your aunt Lauri enough to talk about “adopting” her if uncle Mark divorced her. What has she done to earn their contempt, aside from trying to find love in the wake of her first terrible loss?

Don’t let the judgments of the small-hearted keep you from acting on what your own heart demands.

Could she and Peter have waited longer before getting together? Sure. But both of them were grieving, for God’s sakes. They fell in love and sought the comfort of that love in a time of great loss. How can anyone condemn them for that? Unless you’re withholding incriminating information about your aunt Lauri, this scenario just doesn’t add up.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying: Yes, by all means, reach out to “this incredible woman.” Tell her how much you miss her, admire her, and wish to be in her life. Don’t let the judgments of the small-hearted keep you from acting on what your own heart demands.

And if this causes some discomfort for your father, so be it. Maybe this will cause him to think about whose feelings are more important in the end: his gossipy siblings or a grieving woman whose pain has been compounded by those gossipy sibs. Nor do I see any reason for you to keep your affection for your aunt Lauri a secret. It’s nothing to be ashamed of — just the opposite.

If your aunt’s sad story teaches us nothing else, it’s this: that life is short and that we must enact our love for those we admire before it’s too late. This was the philosophy, by the way, that guided Christ. So seek out your aunt and tell her what you need to tell her. The rest of your family can learn from your example, or choose not to. Don’t worry about them. Worry about what matters: the love and compassion you feel for your aunt.

Courage,
Steve

Author's note: I’m still a bit confused here. Maybe aunt Lauri has done things to provoke the siblings. But this sounds an awful lot like scapegoating. Or am I missing something? Post your feedback, and/or counsel, in the comments section below. Send along a letter to Heavy Meddle, if you haven’t. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. — S.A.

Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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