Walking on eggshells with your in-laws after a loss?
Twenty-eight years ago, my 32-year-old husband passed away in the blink of an eye. One minute he was walking out of the office at the end of the workday surrounded by his co-workers and the next minute he collapsed, falling to the ground in the parking structure. There were no health symptoms or warnings prior to this dreadful day. After receiving the news that Rod suffered from an unrecoverable arrhythmia, I was faced with the inconceivable task of calling his family to share the unexpected, heart-wrenching news of their youngest son/brother’s untimely death. The hospital’s protocol for delivering such horrendous news was to inform his family there is an emergency as the shocking news of a death may impair judgment of driving a car or making decisions. While I followed protocol, was it really feasible for me to find my finest theatrical acting at a time of such distress, what parent would not speculate the situation was dire? My first phone call was to Rod’s sister whom I had been very close to for years, she was the person who ultimately delivered the news to Rod’s parents informing them of the urgent need for them to drive 4 hours immediately to be with us.
By the time his parents arrived at the hospital, I was surrounded by Rod’s two sisters comforting each other with the horrendous news. In complete shock, my mother-in-law looked at me with sad eyes and said, “Rachel, I am so sorry for your loss, please don’t take his baby away from me.” I had given birth 2 years earlier to a beautiful baby girl. Rod’s first (and only) daughter, for my in-laws, was the only living connection to their son. In my own numbness, I stood hugging my mother-in-law as her words tore at my heart. Although I had only been a widow for four hours, the thought of losing a child was incomprehensible to me – I heard her with every drop of my heart. Looking into her eyes that night I was stabbed by her pain that was forever tattooed on my soul. Her eyes spoke for her: my role as a daughter-in-law was to help maintain a lasting relationship with Rod’s family. With the efforts of my in-laws, brother/sister-in-law’s and my daughter’s 13 first cousins, our relationship has been strong, rewarding, complicated at times, and truly a love-fest.
Immediately following his death, we all walked on eggshells not wanting to upset each other regarding a funeral, burial, what the future holds and what is the most appropriate ongoing family interaction. Truth be known, none of us knew what to do, how to react and what was appropriate. Filled with sadness, individually we struggled each day with what the future would hold, without the “buffer” of a spouse/partner what does interaction feel like? What if we disagreed on an important topic would it be appropriate to speak up? Is there an obligation to spend as much time with your in-laws after the loss? For me and my daughter, spending time with my in-laws was a gift. I saw Rod’s expressions in my brother-in-law’s smiles as I shared similar sadness with them but loved hearing new stories of Rod.
Like many of you, the transition to the new lifestyle is challenging but achievable through communication, setting expectations and creating boundaries. For me, when I felt uncomfortable I asked clarifying questions rather than creating internal anxiety resulting in self-doubt. Of course, as a recent widow, I was doubting all aspects of my decision making and personal relationships. I found myself “hurt” by a change in my in-laws routine following Rod’s death. Before his passing, they always stayed at our house when visiting Kansas City. After he passed they stayed at my sister-in-law’s house which made me question if my behavior triggered the change. I questioned whether I said or did something wrong where they no longer felt welcome. After several of these visits, I mustered the courage to ask why the routine had changed. The answer was so simple – my father-in-law felt uncomfortable sleeping in my house as the pain of losing his son was too overwhelming to be under Rod’s roof. He simply was not ready to absorb the pain associated with the loss. Such a logical and reasonable explanation. To be honest, I was so self-absorbed by my own pain, I barely thought of what could possibly trigger additional pain for my in-laws. In addition to a simple explanation, the real gift of the clarifying conversation was opening the door for future conversations.
My story may differ from yours; however, I would feel comfortable going out on a limb suggesting there are similarities. As a family, although we had unspoken challenges with birthday & holiday gifts, family reunions, graduations and weddings, we found our rhythm. For me, I found being true to myself while feeling confident in my decision making was the key to maintaining a meaningful relationship. What I learned was:
In-law relationships can be challenging regardless if there is a loss
Without the safeguard of your spouse/partner, conversations might be misinterpreted or unresolved
For both parties, emotions are at an all-time high after experiencing a substantial loss
In my opinion, the need to redefine and rebuild the relationship following a loss is extremely important. To avoid creating additional anxiety, pain and discomfort my best suggestion is to open lines of communication by asking questions and being inclusive. Create and communicate meaningful boundaries and most importantly avoid judging one another. If something does not feel right, ask a few open-ended questions. You don’t necessarily have to agree with them but if you understand you will be more compassionate towards each other’s needs. Most people’s behavior is understandable when you know what is causing the reaction.
I have been very fortunate to have Rod’s family share the joy of watching our daughter mature from a 2-year-old who experienced the untimely death of her father to a thriving adult. Along the journey, my in-laws have supported my new marriage and our daughter’s life milestones. Most importantly, our daughter has learned so much about her heritage through the connection to Rod’s family. The continued support, love and abundance of stories provide a bond that will last and grow forever.
Read more about in-laws in my blog The Fulfillment of a Promise.
Rachel Kodanaz is a heart-minded professional helping her audiences to Embrace Life’s Challenges. Rachel has been speaking passionately to national audiences of all sizes for over 20 years, addressing all aspects of change, growth, and acceptance that comes with life’s transitions. She is also available for virtual one-on-one consulting to help individuals with their current challenges.
Rachel has published numerous articles and has appeared on Good Morning America. Her published books Finding Peace, One Piece at a Time, best-selling Living with Loss One Day at a Time, and Grief in the Workplace have received international acclaim. Learn more at rachelkodanaz.com