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Virginia Ironside’s Dilemmas: I want to visit my stepfather without getting abuse from his wife

Dear Virginia,

Every other afternoon, I visit my stepfather, who has terminal cancer. It helps to relieve his wife, who takes the dogs out, and does the shopping – and once a week I stay for supper. It gives me a chance to talk to my stepdad about the old days – he's the last connection I have with my family. But last time she hurled abuse at me, saying why should she be forced out into the rain whenever I came round and that she wasn't prepared to cook for me. I was so hurt. I was only trying to help. What can I do?

Yours sincerely, Caro

Oh dear, it's always upsetting to be shouted at. And particularly so when you're shouted at not for doing wrong, but for showing your kindest and most compassionate instincts.

I think you'll have to rein in your natural fury at being treated in this way, and try to be as understanding as you can. Clearly this woman is feeling absolutely at the end of her tether. She's already rocked with grief simply at the idea of losing her husband. And no doubt she feels incredibly left out when you come and talk with your stepfather about old times. It must be, to her, almost as if, when you enter the room, your mother comes in with you – and though you perceive your charitable act as a way of releasing this woman to do the chores and to get a breather, she interprets it as a sign that she's being booted out, ignored and generally hustled out of the way so that you and your stepdad can talk about happy times that she never had any part in.

As for cooking your supper, no doubt she feels like some kind of skivvy, rather than the owner of a home, who is graciously entertaining you to a meal.

And who knows, there may be some underlying anxiety about the will. Have you thought of that? She may fear that your motives are not just those of affection and love but, rather, grasping grabbiness. Are you persuading him to leave you some some of his money? Are you trying to get into his good books before he dies so that you'll have a claim on the estate? Who knows what paranoid ideas are flying through this poor creature's mind?

To let fly like this is, in my books, completely unforgivable. We've all been in intolerable situations but anyone civilised knows there are usually ways of expressing your feelings without wounding people. She could have asked your stepfather to explain her feelings to you, or simply said that while your visits have been appreciated in the past, she'd be quite happy if you cut down a bit now because she felt so much stronger. And of course it's a pity she hasn't apologised. But maybe she's one of those people who just can't say sorry.

Whatever your reaction, it's not the moment to make a scene, for anyone's sake. I would send a letter to both of them explaining your motives and saying that you wouldn't dream of intruding, and that it would be lovely to see them whenever they felt like a visit, and leave the ball in their court, giving her more control. I don't think it'll be long before you get a call to come over.

Readers say...

Are you really helping?

How often did you visit before? It seems they are struggling to accommodate you in their lives. My mother moved house and coincidentally ended up close to her elderly uncle and aunt, whom she previously only saw at family gatherings. She visited them often, taking them on day trips and bringing them meals, and imagined that she was doing them a favour by getting them out of the house.

My mother was never very good at taking hints, so after a few months, they politely but firmly told her that they had a very nice life and routine, thank you very much, and were fed up accompanying her on her outings, which they found tiring at their age, and would she mind leaving them to have their tea in peace? My mother took offence and was outraged at their ingratitude, instead of realising that she had overstayed her welcome. Of course you want to make the most of your time left with your stepfather, but so does his wife.

Name and address supplied


It's all about you

Although I appreciate you're helping, it strikes me that this is really about you and your need to keep some kind of close contact with your stepfather. There is no mention of his wife's feelings. She sounds to be at the end of her tether. She wants to spend some time with her husband, who is terminally ill. She appreciates all you have done for her, but you have reached the point of saturation with your "care".

Leave her alone for a while, then send her some flowers or chocolates. You can arrange a suitable time to visit your stepfather without overpowering her with your constant need to talk about "old times" that she wasn't part of. This lady's husband is dying, so take a step back and have a bit of sympathy for her. Who knows, you could end up with a close relationship with his wife, which she would appreciate as much as you.

Claire O'Donnell

Workington, Cumbria


Forget your own needs

Caro's stepfather is dying so, of course his wife is upset. She is living in the present with a terminally ill husband and now is the time for Caro to forget her own needs – "my last connection with my family" – and start doing practical things to help her cope. So, walk the dog, do the shopping, bring round a bag of food and cook a meal once a week. What she needs at the moment is time to just relax and be herself or to see her friends and come back to a warm home and a hot meal.

Gerhard Scully



Try to include her

What a distressing situation to find yourself in. I assume that your mother has died and your stepfather has remarried. You are obviously very close to him and you are trying to help out. You must, however, try to understand what his wife is going through. To live with someone who is terminally ill is emotionally and physically exhausting, not to mention both stressful and frightening. However much support she is receiving, it can, at times, be very lonely and frightening. When you visit, you say to like to discuss the old days, which is understandable, but maybe she feels a sense of rejection when you are talking about his life with another woman.

I think she feels excluded. I suggest that you try to involve her more with your visits and talk about her life as well as your own with your stepfather. Perhaps a bunch of flowers would brighten her day and instead of her cooking you supper once a week, why not occasionally offer to bring round her favourite take-away? The last thing you want to do is let your stepfather think that there is animosity between the two women he loves. Sometimes you just have to give more than you take.

Anita Ashford