Dear Tzippora,

My father-in-law passed away several months ago. My mother-in-law is very sad and lonely, and has begun visiting us regularly. The problem is that when she visits, her sadness and pain fills the house like a black cloud. I know that she is so heartbroken that she cannot help it. Yet I am beginning to dread her visits. I am also concerned that she could have a negative impact on the children. Please help. How can I be sensitive to my mother-in-law's pain without becoming mired in her sadness, or allowing her to set the tone for the house during her visits?

Sinking in Quicksand

Dear Sinking,

Your question is an important one, and it is one of boundaries. Whenever we set out to help someone, we must be aware of how to maintain our own firm footing so that we do not become sucked into their pain and confusion.

Your mother-in-law's pain is immense. Although the official halachic mourning period (aveilut) has ended, her grief most certainly has not. Especially for an older widow, who does not aspire to remarry, the prospect of a lifetime alone is daunting and overwhelming. Unless the depression is, or is becoming, clinical in nature — in which case she must get treatment — it WILL diminish greatly over time.

It sounds like your home has become a refuge for her. Yet in a certain sense, it has ceased to be a refuge for you.

Your first course of action should be to speak with your husband. Are there other family members who could also welcome your mother-in-law into their homes at this time? Perhaps you could set up a rotation. Sharing the responsibility should ease your burden somewhat.

You should also consider having your mother-in-law over in conjunction with other guests, especially guests with whom she has a relationship. This will dilute the emotional intensity of her visits. Another option is to spend time with her outside the house. Invite her to come with you when you go grocery shopping, or take the kids to the park. Such munane activities can provide her with a respite from her loneliness without becoming an emotional burden for you.

Gently raise the issue with your mother-in-law about joining a support group for widows in their first year of widowhood. In such a group, she would be able to find much more than an escape from her physical loneliness. A society of fellow widows would also provide the emotional support and understanding she craves at this time.

You mentioned your concern that her presence in your home could be harmful to your children. Unless you observe concrete behavioral signs of distress, or trauma, there is no reason for concern. As long as you allow your children to speak to you openly about their feelings, and give voice freely to their experiences, they should not suffer any ill effects from contact with their grandmother's pain. Rather, this can be an opportunity for them to become more sensitive human beings.

Feeling guilty over what you cannot do for your mother-in-law is pointless and will only drag you down. You cannot take away her loneliness and pain, nor are you expected to. Instead you should focus on what you can do for her, and the special mitzvot you are in a position to perform. In addition to the mitzvah of honoring parents, there is another significant mitzvah, the mitzvah of 'Gladdening the heart of a widow." At this sensitive time, every small act you perform for your mother-in-law is a fulfillment of both these mitzvot.