Coming to Terms with What Cannot be Changed

A beautiful, but not always wise friend once told me a story of infinite wisdom. She married a widower with children when she was in her mid-30s. The kids had fond memories of their departed mother, so the house was filled with art objects, furniture and photographic reminders of the deceased.

Additionally, the widower maintained relationships with many people who knew his late wife. The maternal grandparents, of course, wanted to spend time with their daughter’s children. The husband’s parents did as well, and lived close by. Everyone held the departed in high esteem and affection. She had been an extraordinary person, now achieving a kind of virtual sainthood due to her early death.

When my friend (who I hadn’t seen in years) told me all this, I asked what it was like to reside among the living reminders of her predecessor; in the midst of the physical mementos of her husband’s previous wife.

It’s like living with a ghost.

How do you do that?” I replied.

First, you make friends with the ghost.


Indeed, what else was possible? How could the almost palpable presence of this woman be denied? To ignore or discourage discussion of her or suppress her memory — put away the photos and other objects — would be a disservice to the children and risk their alienation.

Surely, the only way forward was to “make friends” with someone she never met, a ghost guaranteed to defeat her if my friend chose to create a competition.

Special days like Mother’s Day remained difficult. On such occasions she suffered the reminder of never giving birth to a child, but also that she was not the “real” mother to her husband’s offspring. Still, the best solution required honoring this woman’s memory; and the part of her living in her offspring and in their father’s memory.

Sometimes life offers limited choices. Those situations must be accepted even if one wouldn’t have chosen them freely. My friend decided to recognize the woman who came before her: see her in the good qualities the children displayed — their beauty, their kindness, and their intellect — just as she came to think of her husband’s first wife as having encouraged a loving side of him she now enjoyed as his second wife.

As I said, in all of this my “not always wise” friend was very wise indeed.

The top image is a Hand Drawn Ghost by Milonicia, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second painting is The Ghost of Vermeer van Delft by Salvador Dali. It came from

7 thoughts on “Coming to Terms with What Cannot be Changed

  1. A wise woman, indeed, Dr. Stein. In marrying the widower, she must’ve known the challenges that awaited her. Cross cultural and biracial marriages come with their own challenges. Forcing change between familial relationships cannot end well.


  2. This is brilliant and profound.


  3. hiddenlayersbeneath

    This story reminds me of my daughter’s mother – the adoptive mom. She is really kind to me, as I’ve been with her. She acknowledges her struggles in not being able to have children of her own, but she and I both openly know that she is my birthdaughter’s real mother – the only mother that my daughter will have consciously known, or at least remembered. Nevertheless, I can feel and hear some of the adoptive mom’s pain whenever she expresses how much her daughter wants to know her birthparents, or when she says that her daughter wonders if some of the qualities and abilities she has stem from her birthparents. That’s something that I have no control over, but I remind the adoptive mom about the importance of her environment and nurture, and how great she must be doing as she rears her daughter. Any sign of talent and flourishing, I would say, is due to her love for and parenting her daughter. I, then, share in her pain as I acknowledge what I no longer have. But unlike your story, the adoptive mom doesn’t have a ghost; she has me from a distance. I’m not sure if that is any worse, but I’m sure that there are differences, perhaps. In divorce cases, for example, there may not be as many memorabilia around. In widow cases, on the other hand, memorabilia keeps the good memories alive. In open adoption cases, there’s the distal yet real contact between adoptive and birth parents. In closed adoption cases, the birthparents become ghosts unrecognized. In both the ghost and real examples, there remains a “threat” of sorts, or perhaps the better word is “competition.” I’m not sure if the intensity of those feelings differ in either scenarios, but I somehow feel less threatened than the adoptive mom, and I feel more empathy for the adoptive mom because I know that open adoptions aren’t easy for them. Technically, open adoptions aren’t easy for the birthparents either, but I’ve constantly reminded myself about the reasons I chose adoption for my daughter – health-based reasons, and, overall, love-based reasons. No one chose that for me, and no one had to force me to choose either. I chose after having first tried to parent my daughter, and after having realized my mental illness in the midst of my love for my daughter. My daughter may have mixed feelings toward me about my decision, or she may even be angry or indifferent, and I’m able to accept that. I knew what I gave up when I gave her up – all the years of bonding, raising a beautiful person, having the title and recognition of “mom,” watching my daughter grow, etc. I may never earn the title mom, and that’s okay. I really only cared about my daughter’s health and quality of life, and I truly believe she is doing way better than if she were to have stayed and suffered with me (this statement is not to put myself down at all, by the way, but is rather mentioned here because I believe she is doing well, or as well as can be expected). The adoptive mom, on the other hand, struggles every day, and yet she feels blessed for being the mom she’s always wanted to be. She wasn’t able to physically have children, but she’s been blessed to have a child, and she reminds me each and every time we speak how blessed she feels, and how grateful she is. She truly loves her daughter, and there’s nothing in the world I would ever want to unintentionally do to come between that. The bond she has with her adoptive mom should be strong, at least I hope it is. That is the bond I did not want her to miss out on. My hope and prayer is that I can build a relationship with my daughter down the road, but I leave that decision entirely up to my daughter. And while my daughter is a minor, I leave that decision up to the adoptive mom. The adoptive mom is the one with all the decision-making abilities, legally and otherwise. And even if I don’t agree with all of the adoptive mom’s methods, I at least trust that her daughter is in safe and loving hands, and that it will all turn out okay in the end. I have more strength and hope for my daughter and her adoptive mom than I do myself, but I still feel this sadness for the adoptive mom for some reason. Perhaps I worry about the effects that the adoptive mom might have on my daughter if she feels anything other than a true mom, but I want the best for both of them. To love my daughter is to love her adoptive mom – her real mom. And with that, back to your story, I was wondering what would have been different if the family in your story were to repeatedly remind the woman that the deceased woman’s heart would have wanted the dad and the kids to be happy, and that would have included her. I wonder if they could have seen her as a mom, too – kind of like an adoptive mom. I am glad that the wise woman in the story chose to see the positives, but I also see the heart and truth of the matter – that relationships in the here-and-now are worth nurturing, especially when they are additions to the family. It may not be like getting a new pet; of course the new pet could never replace the old, deceased pet, but it’s still an invaluable member of the family. How much more are people worthy of being valued as a family member than a pet? Stepmoms and adoptive moms deserve the the same love and nurture as traditional moms do. It’s great to allow others to love and remember those who have passed away, but it’s equally as great to embrace the living as well. That’s at least my perspective, though I’m not wise. I am writing from the heart.


  4. drgeraldstein

    It is clearly both beneficial and hard for you to know from the adoptive mother of what she is doing to raise the daughter you gave birth to; and, the progress your birth-daughter is making, the questions she is asking, etc. As to your question, I don’t know the extent to which the in-laws of the woman in my essay were sensitive to her dilemma beyond what I wrote.

    Liked by 1 person

    • hiddenlayersbeneath

      I think I was reflecting in general, not necessarily for the specific woman in your essay, but I may have misspoken. As for my daughter, the only way I’ll know is when I eventually get to reconnect with her and ask her about her thoughts, her feelings, etc. (with the help of a therapist, hopefully, because I have no idea what I should say, ask, etc., when we do reconnect). And you’re right; there’s no way of knowing precisely what the adoptive mother is doing or feeling, for that matter, apart from what she has expressed to me. I just hope that she and her daughter are happy, safe, and living life to the fullest. All I can do on my end is listen, reassure, and set some healthy boundaries for myself.


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