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Carolyn Hax: A grieving daughter’s suspicions about her stepmother


Hi, Carolyn:

My father married a woman 20 years younger than he. Since he passed away two years ago at 84, his widow hasn’t invited us over to the house I grew up in, and she has had extensive work done on the house. She sent my daughter a card for her birthday, but nothing else. When my brother came to town, she was too busy with her church to see him. When my nephew visited, she dropped off cookies and a gift for his kids, but left because she didn’t want to drive in the rain. She accepts dinner invitations, always comes on Thanksgiving, and occasionally pays.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

I always thought she married my dad for his money, and she insisted that he leave her everything; my dad told me that. My dad left my brother and me a small insurance policy.

She showed no affection toward my dad when he was dying of lung cancer, and she gave him so much morphine that he lost consciousness. She told me point-blank there wouldn’t be any treatment, and joked after he died about “getting the evidence out the door.” I think she’s evil, but she camouflages herself as a super-religious churchgoer.

She recently declined an invitation to dinner because her cat has asthma.

(Nick Galifianakis)

Writing this, it should be obvious. I wonder whether I am just biased against her. How does one handle a person like this?


I might just use “the cat has asthma” when I need an excuse, and I don’t have a cat.

The only answer is a general and rather sad one, that there’s really nothing to “handle”; she apparently does not see herself as part of your family beyond a rather superficial sense of duty. Maybe she did use your father — your dad’s remark about the will is certainly damning — and maybe too there was more love between them than you were able to see, but, either way, I’m not sure how that’s relevant now. Since you plainly dislike her, I’d say you’re overdue to release her from the last few family obligations. And expectations.

That said, two specifics seem worth bringing up:

●“So much morphine”: She couldn’t have given him more than he was prescribed. It’s possible his pain was finally well enough managed for him to sleep, that he asked her to max out the morphine, that he refused further treatment. It might help you to talk to a hospice social worker.

“Extensive work . . . on the house”: While it’s unfortunate your childhood home is getting transformed away, any new owners probably would have done the same. Heck, plenty of adult children get to watch their own parents gut the family nest as soon as it empties. Grief and anger have a way of inflaming what would otherwise be routine.

I see why you’re concerned about bias, but I think it’s moot. You have your life, she has hers, and they needn’t overlap unless you want them to. Done. If you feel it honors your father to keep her in the dinner-Thanksgiving loop, then do. If that hurts more than it helps, then don’t.

And if neither feels right, then I suggest calling hospice again — this time to find help for what have turned out to be obstacles to simple grief. I’m sorry.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at



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