Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: My ex-husband died recently and to get this out of the way, I'm not sorry. When we were married he was drunk and abusive and he hurt my dog deliberately, which I could never, ever forgive him for.
But my preteen son and daughter don't really remember that time. After I left him, he didn't see the children at all for three years until he finally cleaned up his act. And for the last six years he was clean and sober and tried to be a good father to them as far as I could tell. I avoided talking to him as much as possible and never saw him if I could help it.
The problem is that my son is obsessively asking me if I'm glad his father is dead, if I thought he deserved it — his health never really recovered from the drugs and alcohol, and he died of a sudden heart attack.
I've told my son honestly that I'm sorry my children lost their dad, I'm sorry my mother-in-law had to bury her son, everything I could think of to sidestep the question but he keeps asking; I'm not sure what he's looking for. Should I admit I'm not sorry he's gone? Should I lie? I just don't know what to do.
Carolyn says: You can say to him, honestly (right?), that you are not glad this is how things turned out for his dad.
Remember, your son's questions aren't just about you and his dad. Especially at his age, he's going to see this through the lens of his own life and self-worth and place in the world. You need to answer truthfully through a filter of love for your kids.
If you're not sure how to do that and my suggestions aren't words you can say truthfully, then I suggest you talk to a therapist who has good results in treating the fallout from alcoholism in families. I'd do that anyway now, just to establish a therapeutic relationship with someone you can check in with as questions and problems crop up. This is the one you're facing now, but there will be others like it along the way — it's true for all families, really.
Re: Not Sorry
I'm so sorry you're having to go through this. Have you asked your son why he wants to know whether you're glad? Somewhere inside he knows he is part his dad as well as part you, and he may be anxious about the extent to which you see — and dislike — that part of him.
Carolyn says: Anxiety makes sense as the motivation. Thanks for the insight.
Re: Not Sorry
You can say: "I'm sorry he had such a difficult life — where his addiction made it difficult for him to appreciate all of us who wanted to love him. I know he loved you as much as he could. I do think, though, he had a lot of regrets for his mistakes, and I imagine it would be very hard — living a life filled with regret. I'm glad he doesn't have to continue that way anymore. I'd like to think he's at peace."
Carolyn says: Well said, thanks.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.