Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m having trouble mourning my grandfather because of what I found out after he died.
My grandpa was always a kind man who liked to make the grandkids laugh. As a kid, I couldn’t ascertain his age, and he was just a grandpa to me.
However, in the retelling of stories about his life at the wake, I found out that he had married my grandma when she was 16 and he was 28. This meant that she was around 15 when they met. As a survivor of an older man grooming and dating me when I was around middle school age, and now an adult in my early 20s, I am morally against adults dating, sleeping with, and marrying teens. I don’t think it’s possible to have a healthy relationship with this dynamic.
My grandfather always seemed gentle and loving, and I’m having trouble reconciling this new information with the man I knew. I know it was a different time, but I don’t believe human evolution has changed enough in three generations that my 16-year-old grandmother could have had the life and freedom she deserved while married to a man in his late 20s. Her mind was still forming! I feel betrayed by my whole family, who don’t think that this is strange at all. I can’t stop feeling disgusted by this, even when I’m trying to separate this from my normal mourning and sadness for losing someone I’ve loved since I was born. I am trying not to bring it up with my mom and grandma and the rest of the immediate family, but I feel that it colors all of my memories of him. At the same time, this makes me feel like a bad person for speaking ill of the dead, and I have good memories of him. What can I do to celebrate the man I know, while I can’t stop judging the actions I only found out about after his death?
—A Different Time, a Different Man
Dear Different Time,
You are far from alone when it comes to having to grapple with a devastating age difference between your grandparents. Parings between very young girls and adult men were a cultural norm back then, which does not negate your rightful feelings of disgust and disappointment. However, because these relationships are so common, there are many people—perhaps your family members—who refuse to give any thought to what was wrong with them. They would prefer to wave it off as “a different time” than to actually deal with the truth of what young girls like your grandmother had to endure in order to navigate these couplings. And they would prefer to maintain their image of the beloved patriarch in question than to admit that there was something wrong about his interest in such a young partner.
For those reasons, I don’t think it will do you much good to talk to your mother and grandmother about what you are feeling. On some level, I’m sure both of them know precisely how ill-prepared a 16-year-old is for marriage to a man in his 20s—especially your grandmother. However, confronting that now may cause each of them a great deal of pain, particularly if they maintained good relationships with this man. Your grandmother very well may have come to love a man who was what we would today call her abuser. She was too young, it’s not fair that it happened, and you have every reason to feel as mad, confused, and conflicted as you do. But you’ll need to talk to someone else about those feelings. I know our mothers are so often who we run to when we need help with our emotions, but consider how complicated it must be for her to know that she comes from such an inappropriate paring.
You may want to consider talking to a professional to think through this. If not, at least identify a close friend with whom you can talk openly about all of your feelings about your grandfather without judgment, including the positive ones. Don’t expect yourself to forget everything you’ve loved about him or the good memories that you’ve had together.
You had your whole life to develop a relationship with your grandfather and only a short amount of time to process what you have now learned. Don’t expect that you’ll quickly be able to reconcile the complicated truth about who he was—that there were things about him that were lovable and special, and that he was also in a predatory marriage at a time in which this was common. And don’t feel like you have to make some grand performance of mourning if that isn’t what comes naturally. Tend to your emotions instead of shutting them down—that would just make this process more difficult than it needs to be. Wishing you all the best as you continue to grapple with who your grandfather was, for better and for worse.
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