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Counseling/What To Say After A Loss As To Not Generate Rage


My mother died in Novemeber. I am 57. We were very close. Extremely. I live in NY and she died in FL. My brother and his wife lived in the same city as my mother in FL. Since that time my brother has separated from my sister in law. For a couple of years he has been with another woman. He and his new partner recently bought a house together in another city in Florida but he has not yet divorced my sister in law as she doesn't want one.

My sister in law really bonded with my mother. She was closer to my mother than my own sister was and I would venture to say she was closer to my mother than most daughter in laws are. During my mother's dying days it was my sister in law in Florida who tended to my mother's every need as my mother lay in a nursing home and was in the hospital many times. Again, I live in NY and not in FL. My sister in law loved my mother.

The night of my mother's passing I slept at my sister in laws home with plans to return to NY the next day. That night she brought me a suitcase my mother had kept of our family pictures from when we were children. My sister in law told me to take some. And so I did. When I got back to NY there was a vitrolic voicemail on my machine scolding me for the pictures I took. It seemed my sister in law had some favorites that she wanted! As she did not take them out for herself, were not of her childhood nor were pictures of her mother I was very saddened to get her message since in it she took it to the next level and said "After you send back the pictures, I want nothing to do with you ever again".

I managed to smooth troubled waters by kindly letting her know I had no idea she was interested in family pictures from my side of the family. That I was more than willing to have professional copies made of anything she wished. I stated to her what she had said to me: "Take what you want". However she was in what can only be described as a rage.

Today (May 18) I was speaking to my sister in law on the phone. I started to weep about missing my mother and having nothing of hers to remember her by. No artifacts that had belonged to her. My sister in law said to me (to my shock) "I have her ashes. If you want some, I can send you some". I was so shocked that I did not say what I was thinking which is "Why in God's name do YOU have my mother's ashes?". You see, there had been a memorial for my mother in FL and some of the ashes were put in the local waters. It would appear at that time my sister in law left with the "leftovers". I can only summise since I was not at the memorial. I was back in NY and they had it shortly after I had flown home. In fact, I wasn't even notified about it!

As my mother's adult daughter I would like to have her ashes. Since this situation is not healthy at best, I am wondering how I can word things and what tone I should use to see if my sister in law would part with the ashes. I expected her to say "I would be glad to give you the ashes". Instead as stated she said, "I would be glad to give you SOME". I wanted to say, "Why do you need the ashes. Please send them to me and if you would like, I will send YOU some".

My brother does not want the ashes.

I am very hurt my sister in law has kept this information from me. I had mentioned my mother's ashes to her once and wanted to know if there were any left over from the memorial and she said "I don't know". Now today she not only said she has my mother's ashes but I will add "And there is alot of ashes".

How does one deal with a person who is behaving this way? I am puzzled by her behavior.

Any input would be appreciated. Since she went into a rage after I took pictures she had offered me to "help myself to" (pictures I had grown up with") and she wanted to cut me off over it, I am afraid for history to repeat itself over my mother's ashes.

Normally I know how to word things and what tone to use. However this situation based on my sister in law's history has me stymied.

Hello Kim

My condolences for the passing of your mother. I know that is a major event in your life, and a very significant emotional loss. Often, in the aftermath of a significant loss, there is conflict among the survivors, as you're experiencing with your sister in law. The fact that this is occurring in the midst of a grieving process complicates the emotional processes, making resolution very difficult at times.

I encourage you to make sure you are moving through the stages of grief effectively. Unresolved or unexpressed grief can easily turn into anger and resentment, leading to very sad and unnecessary difficulties.

You and your sister in law were both very close to your mother. You might consider getting together with her specifically for the purpose of reminiscing about what you loved about this woman is no longer with you. Use the love that your mother had for both of you as a connecting point. Then, having made that connection, you and your sister in law will be able to come to an agreement about how to best handle your mother's ashes and any other remaining issues.

I also encourage you to assume the best of your sister in law--not because you know for sure that she has the best of intentions, but because this is the best thing for you. If you can't do this fully, just consider the possibility that your sister in law means well, and is doing her best in the aftermath of this significant loss, just as you are.

You're wanting a sense of connection with your mother, which is why her ashes have meaning and significance to you. As you consciously go through the stages of grief, look for other ways you can keep the sense of connection with her alive, through your memories, photographs, and memorabilia. Grieving has a lot to do with letting go in love, and even if you had the ashes, you would most likely be distributing them at some point, which would be another step in letting go. As you approach a loving conversation with your sister in law, try to imagine yourself loving and letting go all the way through the process.

Your mother is and always will be with you, in your heart and in your memories. Let yourself feel that, and celebrate the joy of having known her for so many years.

You can do this, Kim, and you will handle it well.

My very best to you,

Dr. DeFoore


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William DeFoore, Ph.D.


I can answer questions about depression, anxiety, anger issues, marriage issues, parenting, addiction issues and general life coping problems. I will give a positive perspective, offering encouragement and an action plan about the next best steps for you to take.


I have been in practice as a counselor for over 38 years, working with individuals, couples and families with good results.

I am the author of: *Anger: Deal With It, Heal With It, Stop It From Killing You. Health Communications, Inc. 2004. *Anger Among Angels: Shedding Light On The Darkness Of The Human Soul. Health Communications, Inc. 2000. *Serai: Bringing The Children Home. Wingspan Press, 2007

B.A. in Sociology; M.A. in Clinical Psychology; Ph.D. in Counselor Education; Licensed as a Licensed Professional Counselor

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