Dear Family Advisor

Ever since my dad died, Mom reads negativity into everything and explodes at me. After she vents, she's fine.

Last updated: Jun 01, 2009

We just lost my dad to pancreatic cancer. My parents were married for 64 years, and for the last 27 they were with each other every day all day. Now I'm taking care of Mom, and I can't tell whether it's grief, diabetes, or something else that triggers her angry outbursts toward me. She constantly tells me it's her house and reads something negative into the slightest things, even when I'm helping her by clearing dishes or doing some other chore.

I've been letting her vent, and usually everything then goes back to normal. But her negativity is bothering me. Should I keep indulging her?

For some, grief comes out in sobs. For others, it comes out in snippy comments. When we get to your mother's stage of life, we can only hope we'll have understanding and patient caregivers like you who will allow us to feel all we need to feel, even the not-so-nice stuff.

If you listen closely, you'll hear clues about what's bothering your mom the most. "This is my house" might mean she's worried her house will be taken from her or that she feels like she's losing control. Complaining when you clear the dishes could be her way of telling you she's still competent and can take care of herself. She may be concerned that you have "plans" for her --- plans she's not quite ready for. Your mom had your dad around constantly, and she probably talked to him about almost everything. Now she can't, and she's got a lot of grieving to do.

Assure your mom she has a right to be angry. She can be mad at cancer, at death, at having to start a new life, even at you. It sounds like she needs to vent, and sometimes about you. Don't let that hurt your feelings. It doesn't mean you're not a loving, concerned daughter. You are.

Help her find some way to express what's bugging her. Does she have a good friend, cousin, sister, or neighbor to confide in? Encourage her to meet with that person or to write down what she's feeling (even if she feels funny about it at first). Tell her you've heard some people are helped by just screaming to themselves in the privacy of a car. She may not seem like the type to have a private screaming session, but you might be surprised.

You're wise to follow your instincts in letting her vent. Just absorb it for now as much as you can while she works through this. Give her time. If she really gets caustic, consider setting some boundaries. Firmly say "no" if she goes too far. When we're in pain, we can do and say some pretty mean stuff.

If her anger doesn't pass within a reasonable amount of time, encourage her to talk to someone impartial like clergy or a counselor. Also consider whether she's consciously or unconsciously prodding you to push back. If you snap at her now and then or have a good old-fashioned argument, it's OK. Families are amazingly resilient.

Finally --- and this is important --- try to step back a bit and let her do all she can without you. She needs to feel her own strength and power. It's in her best interest for her to run her own house and, when she's ready, to get out and make friends or reacquaint with old friends. Some things will slip through the cracks, but try not to intervene unless it's really important (gas-leak important). Caregivers like to feel needed, and in some ways, you may be avoiding your own grief by staying busy and doing for her.

When the time feels right, spend some time just sitting with your mom. No dishes. No to-do list. Just sit. Tell her you miss Dad. Tell her you feel lost, or whatever it is you feel. Let her comfort you. Let her hear some of the emotions she's feeling come out of your mouth. She needs you --- in a thousand ways --- and that probably scares her. Reassure her that you believe in her, that you know she'll do fine, and that your role is only to help when needed and to be her daughter. If you've been through a difficult time in the past, share with her how you got through it.

Both of you have a lot of changes to go through now. No one else in the world can be her daughter but you. No one else in the world can be your mom.