Considering forgiving dying mother-in-law

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Question: My mother-in-law has terminal cancer. She is undergoing her second round of chemo, and it's unlikely she'll be around much longer.

I've never liked this woman. She's always been rude, if not downright nasty, both to me and my oldest daughter from a previous marriage. I've also been told by my husband that she was physically abusive to him and his two siblings while they were growing up.

Lately, she seems to want to make amends. She has never actually apologized to me, but when I see her, she becomes tearful, hugs me, and tells me how much she loves me. I feel like the cruelest person on Earth, but I can't bring myself to reciprocate.

Am I supposed to just suck it up, return her hug, and tell her I love her, too? Am I supposed to forget about the first Christmas I spent with the family, when my daughter was 10, and she unwrapped old, obviously used gifts from my mother-in-law while the "real" grandchildren unwrapped piles of new, expensive gifts? Am I supposed to forget the years of my mother-in-law's either totally ignoring me during family gatherings or referring to me as "she" as though I weren't present?

I can't quite bring myself to hug her back and say, "I love you, too," because that would be a total lie. But I'm afraid that if I don't do something, I'll regret it.

I've been compromising by patting her on the back and nodding when she does her hugging-and-saying-I-love-you routine. Should I do more?

Answer: Should I won't touch. The real question is, do you want to do more than pat her back and nod?

You can take this on, if you're up to it. When "she becomes tearful, hugs me, and tells me how much she loves me," if it happens when it's just the two of you at a calm moment, you can say: "I appreciate this, I do. I'm so sorry you're ill and glad I can bring you some comfort. But I've struggled to understand why you're being so kind to me now - for years you ignored me, wouldn't even say my name. What changed?"

It's a tough call because some people would be horrified by the idea of being this raw to someone nearing her end, and others would be horrified at the idea of sending her off this Earth with an insincere pat on the back instead of at least trying to get to a deeper truth.

For what it's worth, my experience with the dying is that it's a gift to let them speak their truth. Anecdote, not evidence. It might also help you to see her mistreatment of you as originating in her own misery, and her sudden warmth as an expression of profound regret. To forgive heals more reliably than to be forgiven.

As the longtime target of her rudeness, you get to choose with a clear conscience whatever path through this you feel you need to. Your husband might be a good source of insight, too.

The best way to avoid regret is to think carefully about your options, and to choose the best one without letting fear hold you back.

tellme@washpost.com.

Chat with Carolyn Hax online at noon Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.

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