Q: My mother-in-law has terminal cancer. She is undergoing her second round of chemo, and it's unlikely that she'll be around for 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's 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?
I can't quite bring myself to hug her back and say, "I love you, too," because this would be a total lie. But I'm afraid that if I don't do something, I'll regret it.
Should I do more?
Forget Past Cruelty?
A: "Should," I won't touch. The real question is, do you want to do more?
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," and if it happens when it's just the two of you at a calm moment, then 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. What changed?"
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.
The best way to avoid regret is to think carefully about your options, and to choose without letting fear hold you back.