Q Dear Carolyn: So I have come to the sad conclusion that my aunt hates me, and there is nothing I can do about it. I went to live with my grandmother, her mom, after losing my parents. My grandmother is and has always been very good to me. Losing my dad was very hard for my grandmother, but she has been able to rally and be a great parent to me. Whenever my aunt visits, she continuously criticizes me. My room is not tidy enough; I am just like my dad (lazy, in her opinion); my grandmother does too much for me; and on and on. I know I am not perfect, and I do try to be considerate of my grandma, knowing she is older and needs help, but I don’t think I am slobby or hard to live with. I am away at college most of the time, and yes, I do sometimes sleep in when I come home for holidays, and sometimes grandma does do my laundry, but not because I won’t do it myself. She literally takes it out of my room when I am sleeping even though I have asked her not to do it. She wants to be helpful, and I can’t keep her from doing these things. It really bothers my aunt though, and holidays are tough because her griping makes me sad, and she criticizes my dead parents all the time. Grandma tells me to ignore it, but it is hard. Do you have any advice? — Sad
A Sad: I’m so sorry for your losses.
Your aunt may dislike you, sure, but there are enough other emotional shadings in a family tragedy to suggest you might be missing a bigger picture.
You talk about your grandmother’s difficulty in losing her child, aptly, but I think it is safe to say your aunt also suffered in losing her brother. What you see as criticism of your parents could be your aunt’s dysfunctional way of reckoning with complicated feelings about her brother and his death. We generally understand that people grieve hard for people they love deeply, but in a way we grieve harder — messier — for people toward whom our feelings are mixed. If your aunt saw your father as your grandmother’s favorite, for example, or otherwise resented him, then his death could have left her feeling guilty for that resentment. And then feeling more resentful that he was gone, leaving her with no way of making things right. And then feeling even more resentful as she watched her mother extend all this love and care to you while she, your aunt, was dealing with so much pain and confusion herself. Not everyone softens with grief.
This is, again, just an example, but it’s not hard to spin out a hard—feelings hypothetical with the facts of your situation.
For that reason alone, I think there is something you can do to ease the tension with your aunt (but only if you feel up to it, of course): Instead of seeing her as someone who dislikes you, reframe her as someone who dislikes her place in the world as she now knows it. Meaning, she dislikes that her life was upended by what happened; dislikes how things have played out since; dislikes her role; dislikes how she feels about others; dislikes how she feels about herself.
And from there, envision her as someone who has not reckoned with these bad feelings well enough to recognize where they come from or to stop herself from dumping them on everyone else.
So, she carps about your dad? Think, “This all must be hard for my aunt.” She carps about how much her mother does for you and everyone else? Think, “This all must be hard for my aunt.” She carps about your housekeeping or how late you sleep? Think, “This all must be hard for my aunt.” Whatever you feel and express after that thought process is bound to be more compassionate, more selfless, than before, even if you’ve always tried to be civil, polite or kind.
Now for argument’s sake again, let’s say you were actually right all along, that your aunt just doesn’t like you and didn’t like your parents and is generally just an unpleasant person for you to be around. Let’s say it isn’t complicated for her, and it isn’t her grief talking. A more intentional, more compassionate response from you will still yield better results than just trying to ignore her or tune her out. Worst case, you’ll emerge just knowing you took the emotional high road; best case, she’ll come around to see you’re all just doing your best under unthinkable circumstances; middling case, you’ll confuse her utterly with kindness — none of which I can recommend highly enough.