Holidays and Grief Series: The Death of an In-Law

Note from Dr. Gloria:

I wrote the following article with grief and in-laws in mind; however, there is some important information for all bereavement.  We know that the Holidays are a difficult time for all of you.  Take care of yourself.  Write for the blog.  Comment on others articles.  Eat healthy foods, avoid alcohol.  Ask others for help.  Let friends decorate your tree. Exercise even if it is only walking around the block.  Listen to our radio program and take strength from our wonderful guests.  The greatest gift you can give yourself and those who love you, including the ones who will not be with you, is the gift of taking care of your health.  Grief is work and takes a huge amount of energy.

Dr. Gloria

Holidays and Grief:  When an In-law Won’t be Home for Christmas

In all of our lives there will be holidays where we have lost a special person.  This can be especially confusing if the person your family has lost is an in-law.  You may find yourself without the patience to deal with the surviving in-laws response to loss.  Such was the case with Mary and Robert.

Mary:  My father-in-law died last year.  He had been ill and it was his time to go.  The problem is my mother-in-law.  She is very depressed and just sits around the house and talks about how much she misses my father-in-law.  It is the holidays and we have kids. I have to admit I told my husband, Robert, that I just don’t want to spend Christmas with his mother.

Robert:  My father died this year after a long illness.  My mother is very sad and needy. The kids and I try to cheer her up, however my wife Mary doesn’t want to be around her. Mary got really mad on Thanksgiving when I left her and the kids alone with mom while I watched football with my brothers.

This is not an uncommon scenario for families who have lost an in-law. Holidays can be very difficult and sometimes uncomfortable.  Relationships change with the loss of a family member.  Mary and Robert have a challenge dealing with grief during the holidays but there are things that can be done to ease the pain.  The first step is to acknowledge that things will not be the same this year. The second is to set up a plan and acknowledge the fact that everyone grieves differently and that they have a right to their grief.  It is best not to judge behaviors or to expect the bereaved in-law to “get over it.”  Each of us has a unique response to loss and your loss is not mine.  Rather than avoiding the subject of the deceased in-law set up a time to celebrate their life.  Plan a ritual with the surviving family members, including the children.  Light a special candle, share stories of happy holidays past, have family members bring memorable pictures. This will get the grief out in the open and give it a place in the holiday festivities.  Lastly, remember that Christmas is only one day and that for the bereaved that day is often not as difficult as the anticipation.

Dr. Gloria Horsley Ph.D.  is Marriage and Family Therapist living in San Francisco.  Her books include; The In-Law Survival Manual: Cultivating Healthy In-Law Relationships, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997;  Teen Grief Relief:  Parenting with Understanding Support and Guidance, Rainbow Books, July 2007, and co-author of the book, The Eric Hipple Story: Men’s Depression, Real Men Do Cry.

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