My father-in-law and I have never got along. When my husband and I first starting dating, his father accused me of corrupting his son. He didn't support our marriage. When we got together for family events, he hardly ever spoke to me, which suited me fine.
When we started having kids, I never tried to prevent them from knowing their grandfather, even though he had never been anything other than a horrible father to his own children. Yet he always had something to say about the way we were raising them, where they went to school, etc. One time he tried to sign them up for private school, even offered to pay for it. That was the one time I put my foot down because I knew, from past experience, that he would pay for maybe the first six months and then tells us it was time we started paying. We had a huge fight about it.
Recently, Grandpa died quite suddenly. My husband was shattered. My kids are truly grieving because they loved their grandfather. I feel like a monster. His own kids always said they hated him, but at the funeral they acted like he was some kind of saint they would miss for the rest of their lives. I feel like I never really knew the man. Maybe if I had tried harder, been more patient, we might have had a more peaceful relationship and could have actually been friends. I just feel so guilty now that he's no longer with us, especially about all the horrible things I said about him.
Guilty in Germantown
My father was a genuine bastard, probably the worst person you could ever meet. My hate for him made me who I am today. I made a vow at a very early age that I would never be like him and spent a good part of my life steering my course away from his star.
He lived long enough to be a crotchety old know-it-all without a good thing to say about anyone except himself. When he accidentally electrocuted himself (he refused to hire a contractor to do some work in his house because he could do the work better than any overpaid electrician), do you think I grieved? Just because there are good fathers in the world doesn't mean all fathers are good. Some we are better off without.
I don't know why dying turns bastards into saints, but this is common to our culture. Maybe it's superstition – a fear of speaking ill of the dead. Maybe it's just good manners to extol their redeeming qualities, even if you have to make them up. Nobody wants to go to a funeral and listen to stories about all the people the stiff hurt in the years he cursed this earth with his presence. It's just not done.
Don't feel guilty because you didn't know he was about to die. I doubt, had you known, that it would have made any difference. All you can do is mind your manners and go through the polite motions of grief. Find something nice to say about him – he loved his grandchildren – and repeat it at appropriate moments. Those who really are grieving will appreciate it.
I suspect the real source of your guilt is your lack of grief. You know you're supposed to think better about the dead, but in your heart you really don't. If you're like me, you probably feel profound relief. Don't beat yourself up about this. You're not a monster. You're only human. Life goes on.
Got a problem? Jack Waggon can set you straight: firstname.lastname@example.org