How Do You Delicately Bring Up the Past?

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Dear Miriam,

I recently moved my mother into a nursing home, and I’ve gradually been meeting all the staff. Last week, my mother was being cared for by a young nurse who struck me as familiar. I went home and searched for her online, and I discovered that she is the daughter of a long-ago deceased friend. Her mother must have passed when she was very young. I’d like to tell her that I knew her mother, but I don’t want her to know I looked her up or make her uncomfortable by discussing her family life at work. Is there any appropriate way to tell her I know who she is?

Signed,

Meeting the daughter of the deceased

Dear Meeting,

You must have been quite shocked to have these parts of your life come into contact in this way. Before you consider how you might approach the daughter, do be sure that you’re dealing with your own feelings regarding the loss of this person, regardless of how long ago it was or how close your relationship was. If you need to process her death, do it with someone removed from the situation, and definitely not with her daughter.

To keep your knowledge about her mother to yourself at all has the potential to strain your future visits with your own mother, since this will likely be on your mind. But to say, “I did my research and figured out you’re Margaret’s daughter,” would be intrusive. You want to find some middle ground that lets her know what you know but doesn’t force her to reminisce about her mother if that feels painful or inappropriate at work.

After you’ve sorted out your own feelings, when you next see this nurse casually around your mother, you could say, “I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but you remind me of my old friend, Margaret.” Then leave it at that. That way you’re not pretending not to know who she is, but you’re saying something open-ended enough that she can confirm if she wants or demur politely if the comment is uncomfortable.

If she doesn’t respond favorably to your introduction of the topic, don’t bring it up again. I hope, though, that her loss is far enough in the past that she’ll be able to say, “Oh, how did you know my mother?” and the two of you can chat a bit about happy memories. Perhaps, in a circle of life sort of way, you might be able to tell her that it’s lovely to have her care for your mother since you think so fondly of hers.

Be well,

Miriam

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