Q: Now that I have become more observant and am aware that it is prohibited to speak ill of others, I find it increasingly difficult to speak with my mother. All of her conversations quickly turn to the negative in others. How can I maintain my relationship with her while not transgressing the laws of proper speech? She is housebound and alone and says that she is too old to change her ways. And how can I atone for the negative speech that I have already spoken?
A: The rectification for lashon hara (negative speech) is to learn the Scroll of Esther with Rashi, the midrashim of the sages and drush chasidim, and also to identify with Queen Esther.
You can speak of current events with your mother or discuss a different topic that interests her. For instance, if she is a good cook, you can discuss recipes with her. Ask her for all her old recipes, talk about different ways to bake or cook various dishes, etc. Of course, you can apply this to other areas of interest for your mother. Although your mother insists that she is too old to change, she will also feel much better about herself if she overcomes her urge to speak about others. By talking about other areas of interest, you (and she) may be surprised to discover that although she is housebound and alone, she has a lot to offer to others. Another area that may interest your mother is a mutual exploration of family history, of course, without the negative speech.
Ultimately, all of our conversations should be about how to better serve God. This may not happen right away, but just keeping away from negative speech topics is already a major step in the right direction. You can also interest your mother in praying for others – share with her the list of names of people that you are praying for, and update her as to their progress. This can be a positive outlet for her urge to speak about others.
The story of the "Ba'al Tefillah" by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov might also give you more insight into this situation.