My stepdaughter is using my guest room to store her grief, in this week’s We’re Prudence.

Each week in the Tuesday column, Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. She’ll post her final thoughts on the matter on Fridays.

Here’s this week’s dilemma and answer; thanks to L&D Nurse, Mike Nitabach, Moira Rose, and Whatever You Want for their ideas!

Dear Prudence,

Last year, my stepdaughter had a late-term miscarriage. It devastated her and her husband. They couldn’t stand the sight of the nursery, so they “stored” all the baby items in our guest room, from the rocking chair to the car seat. You can’t even walk into the room because it is so packed. We only have a two-bedroom house. I have tried to be patient, but neither one will even discuss the situation and will walk out of the room if you try. My husband offered to put the stuff in a storage unit and my stepdaughter flew into a rage. She didn’t want anyone else touching her baby’s stuff. I understand the complications of grief. I unexpectedly lost my first husband and my mother the same year and despite that being a decade ago, certain things will trigger me to cry—but life still has to go on. And they have a four-bedroom house. There is no logic to these logistics. Please, I need some advice here.

—No Room

Dear No Room,

I’m glad I asked for help with this one. These two responses, from “L&D Nurse” and “Mike Nitabach,” represent my initial reaction, which was “This woman has been through so much and continues to go through so much. Just let the guest room go!”

L&D Nurse: There is no logic, this is true, because it’s grief. If you value your relationship with these people at all or have any empathy for any human being at all you need to wait this out. Ten years from now you won’t care that you couldn’t use your second room for a year or so, but you will feel shame at having forced your stepdaughter to face the worst grief she’s ever felt before she is ready. And honestly you really can’t see why having a four-bedroom house is irrelevant when the items represent all of this woman’s hopes and dreams and her visions for the future? A whole villa would be insufficient space for storing those items. Lastly, please never compare the grief you felt at losing your husband and mother to your stepdaughter’s grief at losing her child again.

Mike Nitabach: First, I think some generosity of spirit is called for here. Can we agree that a late term miscarriage is exponentially more devastating than having a bunch of stuff filling up an extra bedroom? (It was an unused bedroom, right? That’s why there was the opportunity to put the baby stuff in there in the first place?) Second, a key parameter is how long ago the miscarriage occurred. Does “last year” mean a handful of months ago, or well over a year ago? If the former, it’s a no-brainer to grant your stepdaughter some more grace. If the latter, see “First” above. What’s more important to you: Doing a solid for your stepdaughter and knowing that you are a kind and generous step-parent? Or emptying back out your unused extra bedroom now, instead of later?

But I wasn’t sure if this was the most helpful approach. That’s because, 1) You people (Slate readers) have yelled at me in the past for letting women struggling with infertility, miscarriage, and infant loss get away with anything and everything, without regard for the feelings of their family members. And 2) If the letter writer felt generous enough to let the baby items remain in her home indefinitely, she would have just done that instead of writing in. So my next thought was that she could give a firm warning, like Moira Rose suggests here, and then move everything. (I would have given a grace period until March 15, but you get the idea.)

Moira Rose: Your spouse sends Stepdaughter and Stepson-In-Law a kind, succinct email that says, “On March 1st, we’ll be moving the things we’ve been storing for you to a storage unit in NearbyTown. We are happy to pay for this storage indefinitely. Whenever you’d like these items for yourself, we will drop everything to help you move them to your house. Love, Non-Step-Parent.” (Stepparent’s fingerprints should not be on this decision at all, or Stepdaughter will use that as a wedge.) Then do it. She can rage and carry on, and I don’t think I even blame her all that much. But her grief is not a paying roommate in your house. Life goes on whether we want it to or not. Pick a nice, safe storage unit and never bring it up again—especially don’t bring up the cost. Let this be the gift that you keep giving and never expect thanks for.

But, ouch. While totally reasonable and fair, that still felt a little harsh to me.

That’s why I was relieved to read the suggestion from “Whatever You Want,” which involves the same action (putting the stuff in storage) with a slightly different twist: Just do it, quietly and gently, with no big announcement.

Whatever You Want: They can’t handle the conversation. Don’t ask them to have it. Put the stuff in storage (in a place with some sort of temp control/flooding prevention so it won’t get damaged) and don’t talk about it anymore. When they are ready to talk about it, they’ll ask about it and your husband will say something like: “Oh we had to put it in storage because we had a guest staying over, but we can go pick it up with you whenever you want.” (or “we needed to use the room” if you don’t have a guest and are likely to be caught out on that—but if you don’t have guests, is it that big of a deal to just let it be?) He needs to convey this is a light, innocent tone because you did nothing wrong (except maybe by ignoring their previous distress at the idea of it going into storage, but I think you’d be doing them a favor by just acting like that conversation didn’t happen because it was a highly emotional reaction). You put stuff in storage because it didn’t fit in your house. If they get mad, explain that you saw how hard a subject it was for them and you didn’t want to cause them more pain by making them deal with it before they were ready but needed to do something with it in the meantime. At some point, if your husband can do this gently and feels it might be better received, he might find a way to gradually start introducing the idea with “Auntie Carol is coming to stay with us this week.” “Where is she staying?” “In the guestroom.”

Don’t compare your grief to theirs (it’s not the same—which is not to say that it’s less than, in some ways yours was extremely significant, but it’s very different) because the comparison is not going help. And definitely don’t mention their extra bedrooms, which is a great way to remind them of the kids they thought they’d have by now, and because it’s not hugely relevant (they can’t emotionally handle having the stuff in the house with them right now, how many bedrooms they have to store that stuff is not super relevant unless you’re not able to pay for storage). Or you could do the super complicated thing: Put it all in storage, see if they start asking for the stuff, and then hurriedly move it back into the guest room before they come to get it. Don’t recommend because that level of tiptoeing around someone else’s feelings means either you or your husband or both of you aren’t willing to assert your boundaries and stick to them … but it’s an option.

Also, check your instinct (it’s coming through pretty strongly in your letter even though you acknowledge your empathy with their loss—which is partly why I think the comparison backfires) to suggest that they need to get over it already or that your stepdaughter is being entitled. If she senses that you believe this, she’s going to be more focused on how much she’s failing your perception of this than actually processing what has happened.

What this response clarified for me is that it’s not really the car seat finding a new home that’s upsetting to the letter writer’s stepdaughter. It’s the conversation about it and how heavy and final it feels. It’s having to approve a decision in a way that suggests she’s ready to move on, when she’s not actually ready at all. And you can just skip all that.

I also loved the last two sentences. That note about empathy is a very important one.
Whether the letter writer can conceal any “time to get over it” feelings that may exist will have a bigger impact on her relationship with her stepdaughter than any decisions about storage will.


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