This weekend I spoke with Jeff's dad. We try to talk a few times a year. Jeff's family lives about six hours away by car from where I live, so we don't get to see each other too often. When Jeff died, I kept in contact with his dad, one of his brother's and his wife and their children. I'm not close to his mother (his parents have been divorced for years and my relationship with her is a long, complicated story) nor his other brother -- although I send his brother and family a holiday card and an update and pics.
Although I still call Jeff's dad my 'father-in-law' and I'm still "Aunt" Lisa to those nieces and nephews, I know that I'm technically not related to them anymore. Legally I'm not related to them anymore. My kids, however, will always be related to them. Emotionally, however, I will always feel that connection to them. For me, that doesn't go away; at least, not yet.
When Jeff died, I thought that I lost two families -- the one I had with Jeff and our family unit and his family. To some extent, I'm sure it's hard when they see me and Jeff isn't around. We still talk about him and laugh about things, but when my brother-in-law came up to visit for my daughter's communion, several years ago, I saw that he had a hard time standing in for Jeff because it just hurt him that his brother wasn't there.
After Jeff died, I wanted everything to stay the same. I didn't want to lose contact with any of his family members, or my friends for that matter, but things change. Early on, when I went to private therapy, I asked the therapist why it hurt so much and she said, "because those are people we expect to stay with us, who will want that connection and will help now that he's not here. The truth is that they can't handle it or move back on with their own lives. Sometimes the grief from losing the secondary people is just as bad as the grief from losing your husband."
When I first heard that, I thought, 'No way this hurts as much as losing Jeff," but when I thought about it further, I realized that losing in-laws or friends after losing Jeff did hurt very bad and was just going to happen and no matter what I did I couldn't control what they did. Whatever the reason, I've learned that it's important to do what you can to keep the relationship close if that's what you want, but to understand that what you want may not be what they want.
I believe the first thing you should do is have an honest talk with your husband's or wife's family and see how they feel about continuing to be a part of your life. If there are kids involved, do whatever you can to keep that relationship going, as long as it is a positive one for your kids. Be prepared for changes though. You might hear from them more or less. They might cry when you talk with them. They might not even mention your husband's or wife's name because they can't handle it or because they think you can't handle it. I tried to make it clear that I will always talk about Jeff because I want the kids to feel comfortable. It's easy now to do that with them. If they are doing things that bother you, it's important to speak up. You don't need additional stress at this time so it's important to keep the lines of communication open.
I try to visit and am planning a summer visit in 2008. If you live too far away, keep in touch by emails, pictures or DVDs.
Sometimes no matter what you do, it's just not going to be enough. Jeff's best friend promised me at the funeral he would never leave my kids and would always be there for my son to teach him the martial arts that he had taught Jeff. I never saw him again. He called three times since the funeral, but we never saw him again. My lifelong best friend and I lasted two years after Jeff died. My other best friend hasn't left my side since Jeff died. I have also found new friends.
So I'm glad I talked with my father-in-law and I hope that continues, but I know that things can change. Life changes. Relationships change. Friendships change. Now I try to accept it.
What is your relationship with your in-laws?