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Death of an In-Law
When your spouse is grieving, how can you help them cope?
No matter how many times you wished your mother-in-law were dead when she unexpectedly dropped in for a visit, would you be ready to cope with the real thing? When your spouse loses a parent, you may be thrown into an uncharted ocean of emotion you may not be ready for. "When a parent dies, part of your past dies," says Heidi Horsley, a therapist and grief expert. The good news that comes along with this reminder of how fragile life is: It can bring you closer together.
When Joe’s* father, nicknamed "Angie," died in 2004, it was the first significant loss for both him and his wife, Angela. "Angie was larger than life," says Angela. "He was a retired professional baseball star, a storyteller, a business owner, an outspoken and politically incorrect person—he was one of a kind."
Unfortunately, Angie waited until he was very sick to tell Joe and Angela that he was having surgery, after which they were told he had stage four colorectal cancer. He lived only two weeks after the surgery.
In those two weeks and in the days and months that followed, Angela and Joe drew closer. "We talked more—obviously about decisions about his dad's care and what to do. We even entertained the thought of having him live with us," says Angela. "And we hugged more. There were more frequent 'I love yous.' "
The couple also had a two-year-old at home, and it took all of their energy to try and keep their fears and emotions in check around her. Angela, especially, felt the burden of holding down the fort while Joe spent as much time as he could by his dad’s bedside. She coordinated childcare so she, too, could visit Angie.
Angela was also weighed down with the thoughts of what was to come. "I’d never had anyone that close to me die, so I was experiencing new emotions too," says Angela. "I knew my husband idolized his dad and I was really afraid of the grief he would experience if and when his dad passed."
After Angie died on March 15, with both Joe and Angela at his side, they had to make the arrangements and preparations for burial. They were also faced with giving the eulogy. Joe approached friends and family about it, but they all declined and deferred back to him, so Angela offered to help.
She quickly went to work and typed up many thoughts that helped express how they both felt about Angie. Joe used many of Angela’s words in his eulogy, and Angela says she was even more touched when Joe asked her to deliver a eulogy of her own. "I don't think my husband really knew how much I loved his dad and valued him in our lives until that day," she says. "Since then, we remember songs, events and words he uttered in his final weeks. And although it's hard to remember and relive the pain, I feel going through that created a special bond between us."
Learning to Cope
Like Angela, when faced with comforting a grieving spouse, you may feel overwhelmed by some of the duties you’ll have to take on that your spouse doesn’t feel up to. Not to mention, you’ll most likely be grieving too. Even worse, you may feel you’re at a loss when it comes to comforting your spouse. What can you say and do to help ease their pain?
Offer support. "Let your spouse know that you’re there for them if they need you," says Horsley. This is especially important if your spouse is pulling away from you. Eventually, they’ll come around, says Horsley. However, if over time your spouse is becoming more isolated, drinking too much or can no longer find joy in the things they do, voice your concern and help find a counselor or support group.
Don’t try to fix the problem. "You can't ‘fix’ a death, because you can’t bring the person back," says Horsley. "Just be there with the person in their grief, let them cry, let them talk and listen to stories and memories they have of when their parent was alive."
Your spouse will have a range of feelings: sadness, anger, anxiety, loneliness and more. "Acknowledge and validate how hard it must be for them to lose their parent," says Horsley. "Don't have a timeline about where your spouse should be in their grief. Grief doesn't happen in nice neat stages; it comes in waves and feels more like a roller coaster ride of emotions."
Skip the clichés. "Don't throw out platitudes like, ‘It was just their time to go,’ ‘God must have wanted to take them,’ ‘Now they’re in heaven and are happy,’ ‘Death is inevitable’ or ‘You’ll be okay. Everything will be okay,’" says Dr. Patricia Covalt, psychotherapist and author of What Smart Couples Know.
Don’t talk about your losses. "Don't shift their grief to you," says Covalt. Instead, listen to what your spouse has to say and ask questions—caring, appropriate questions—about their experience with the loss.
Take action. "Finding ways to actively grieve and pay tribute to your parent often helps people heal," says Horsley. You can do a breast cancer walk or similar activity that supports finding a cure for the cause of death. Also, actively keep memories alive and pass stories of your parents down to the next generation. Says Horsley, "Incorporating the deceased into your life in new ways and continuing those bonds is important."
While the initial shock and outpouring of emotions will fade over time, they’ll still surface from time to time. For example, when Joe is feeling nostalgic he’ll listen to Neil Diamond, Angie’s favorite singer. These songs often bring back a flurry of memories for him, but after Joe listens to them for a while, Anglea says, "I help him by turning them off."
Joe and Angela, now married nine years, also had a second child—a son who looks and acts just like his grandfather. Says Angela, "His stance, his looks, his colorful personality and ability to make everyone smile all remind us of Angie and prompt us to share Angie stories."
*EDITOR'S NOTE: Last name has been omitted by request of subject
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