Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
My husband passed away suddenly and unexpectedly over two years ago. I am in a lot of emotional pain, but that’s not why I am writing.
Three decades ago my husband’s daughter accused him of molesting her; this recollection had come to her, she said, during a course of psychotherapy. He said it wasn’t true, and he did not exhibit any emotional overreactions or defensive attitudes; I had never had any reason or indication at all to think that he had pedophilic tendencies, and I believed him. It was during the height of the satanic ritual abuse panic, and his daughter’s therapist was in the business of extracting these kinds of memories. A few years later she seemed to be coming around to the view that they were false memories.
Now, just this week, his daughter emailed me (we are not in touch) to bring this matter up again. When I asked her what had caused her to come back to this way of thinking, she went off in a diatribe to say that I had no idea how many people my husband had hurt, that she was being kind not telling me the true story but she would, etc. I do not think any of it is true, and I certainly had found nothing in his papers, files, computer entries, souvenirs, and the like after his passing to suggest anything untoward at all, not that I had been looking-this is only in retrospect. We had a very loving marriage, and he will be my partner as long as I live. But this situation is very hurtful to me, and I don’t know why his daughter is invading my life in this way. I would very much appreciate your assessment and suggestions for how to deal with it and with my emotional responses to it.
With thanks and appreciation,
I can imagine that this accusation is unsettling in several senses, because of the corrosive conflict it introduces into your relationship with your stepdaughter, because of the way it assaults your deceased husband’s reputation, and perhaps, but not necessarily, because of any seeds of doubt it plants regarding his behavior in relation to his daughter years before you arrived on the scene. In a smaller but still significant way, it also might well undermine your faith in counseling, to the extent that your stepdaughter’s therapist could have inadvertently reinforced the apparent validity of memories of abuse that were vague or altogether imagined. This latter effect would be regrettable if it discouraged you from consulting with a therapist who could actually help you sort through this complicated family dynamic, in which you might well feel caught in the middle between the living and the dead.
To seek clarity in the midst of this painful confusion, let’s begin by considering the facts, as best psychological science can establish them. First, there are few things as unreliable as eyewitness testimony, as any criminal lawyer can attest. Memories are not recordings of events as they happened, they are reconstructions in the present in light of current emotions and motivations. This does not mean that they are simply falsehoods, or that people who report dramatic or traumatic events are maliciously lying—though of course, this too may sometimes be the case. More commonly, we as human beings tend to recall details that fit our sense of how something happened, in a sense selectively recalling details without consciously intending to do so in order to support their current story, and then invisibly filling in the gaps with assumptions that we mistake for truths. This is so even when we are trying to recall in detail the specific actions that constituted our having breakfast this morning, and it is certainly the case when we as adults are attempting to reconstruct memories of events that occurred in our early childhood. Complicating this cognitive reality is a social one: remembering is an interpersonal process, one in which the questions, intentions and convictions of another can easily influence what we remember and what sense we make from it.
Now let’s place this well-documented psychological fact up against another one: the best estimates of the occurrence of childhood sexual abuse suggest that perhaps one third of all women have been sexually abused in some form in childhood, the majority of them by a family member. This sobering statistic means that the chances are good that if someone is reporting abuse, the claim should be taken seriously—even if not accepted uncritically. In legal arenas where such claims are investigated, careful protocols to establish the evidence for the accusation are followed, with the pursuit of evidence of wrongdoing sought in tangible form (photographs, videos), medical records (injuries compatible with the claimed abuse) and corroborating testimony (similar claims against the same defendant, as in recent clergy abuse scandals). Here, of course, you have found no such evidence in your own attempts to investigate your stepdaughter’s claims, and no further legal action is in any case possible. So the issue is necessarily one to be dealt with therapeutically, rather than in a court of law.
What, then, might be done? Very likely the answer will be different for you and your stepdaughter, just as your predominant emotional response to your husband’s death has been different. For her, it sounds as if she will need to come to terms with a relationship with a father that was at minimum deeply disappointing and at worst actively abusive, and perhaps marked by a sense of abandonment if she blames him for leaving her mother if it were a case of divorce. Grief therapy could make a contribution to that by providing her a forum for safely venting her hurt, anger and resentment, while also reclaiming power to direct her own life as an adult, seek compassionate understanding for the little girl she was, and to make wise and safe choices as she seeks out trustworthy relationships in the present. Note that such therapy would not require the therapist to have a “God’s-eye view” of the reality of any abuse suffered, but would instead work with the feelings and conclusions your stepdaughter lives with, as they are what constitute what is psychologically real for her. A skillful and compassionate therapist can be a great ally in winning freedom from the grip of events we can neither verify or change.
But of course for you, the process of grieving will be different. Your emotional pain is as real as your stepdaughter’s, even if it is of a very different kind. You have every right to mourn the man you knew and loved, to contend with the loneliness of living without him, and perhaps to work to come to terms with any human failings that he showed in his marriage to you, even if in other respects the relationship was a precious and unique one for you both. Grief therapy might therefore also be useful to you, helping you claim the legitimacy of your loss, while in effect granting your stepdaughter the right to her grieving process, as you also require her to grant you the right to yours. It would be an unfortunate further loss if granting this space to you both resulted in greater distance between you, especially if you once enjoyed a history of closeness that would gratify you both to reaffirm in the years that remain. But this more hopeful outcome would require the assent of both parties, and a mature and compassionate stance on both sides to acknowledge that although you have had the same loss, you do not have the same grief.