Turns out the invisibility cloak isn’t as much fun as I’d thought

I’ve been wanting – needing, actually – to write this post for some time. It’s been on my mind for weeks, but I haven’t figured out just what I want (or need) to say. I still haven’t, but I’m going for it anyway. Bear with me, please.

I knew that it would be really hard when Bill died. That’s a completely ridiculous statement, of course, because – duh – it’s always really hard when you lose someone you love. But I knew it would be more than emotionally hard; specifically, I knew it would be difficult being the spouse of someone who’s lost a parent.

‘Cause, y’all, this is not easy. It’s not easy answering your kids’ questions about death. It’s really not easy helping them navigate their own grief, when they can’t always verbalize their thoughts and feelings. You wind up second-guessing their meltdowns and seemingly unusual behaviors and wondering, Is this because Grandpa Bill died? Is it because of their new, crazy schedule? Is it simply because they’re being little schmucks? If you’re just being a schmuck, there’s an app for that. If you’re exhausted, we can re-work things so you get more sleep. But if this is Grandpa Bill-related, we can skip the time-out and go straight to the hugs. Shepherding kids through grief is complicated and scary and really damn stressful.

It’s also not easy being a supportive wife. Nick is so deeply sad, more sad than I can fully grasp, and I so want to help him… But there’s so little I can do. He’s working through his grief in his own way, and as much as I want to crawl in there beside him, I just can’t; it’s not my grief. It is a tremendously awful, peculiar feeling, watching and knowing that someone you love so very much is suffering, and you can’t fix it, you can’t take away their sadness. It’s a strange and anxiety-riddled spot, this spouse-of-someone-who-lost-a-parent place.

I know that just being here, both literally and emotionally, is perhaps what Nick needs the most (that, and someone with whom to not eat anything for five days, for the love). And I’m trying, very hard. I’d read that one of the best things a spouse can do when their partner is grieving so freshly is to take over most of the household chores, and so I’m trying to do that, too. I’m still doing what I used to, of course – getting the girls off to school, emptying the garbages, making most of the meals, doing the laundry, paying the bills – but I’ve been actively taking on chores that Nick and I used to share, from mowing the lawn to feeding the dogs. Perhaps surprisingly (given that I have a tendency to sometimes, um, keep score of who does what around the house; I know… not my finest quality…), I don’t mind any of this. I absolutely get it; the little things are just too much. And if I can’t help Nick actually feel less sad, at least I can let the dogs out before bed. There’s a comfort in that.

But that doesn’t make it easy. Running a household (for lack of a better term) is trying under good circumstances, when you’ve just gotten home from work and have dinner to make and homework to supervise and dogs to feed and floors to be vacuumed and laundry to be put away and emails to be written and books to be read and lunch boxes to be packed and fights to break up. It’s especially trying when you’re doing all of that and trying to help your children and your husband in the wake of losing their grandfather and their dad. I don’t mean to say that it’s harder being the spouse of someone who lost a parent than it is being the person whose parent died. Not at all. I’m not comparing. I’m simply saying that this spouse role is really tough.

It’s downright paralyzing when you, yourself, are grieving deeply, too.

There have been many, many times when I’ve wanted to curl up in bed and sob it out… but I just can’t. The girls need to get to school. Groceries need to be purchased. Dogs need to go to the vet. Life is going on, and when it’s up to me to see that we dot our Is and cross our Ts, plus actually shower every once in a while, there’s time to burst into tears while mowing the lawn and time to cry after reading emails that had long been forgotten, but there just isn’t time to fall apart.

Man, though… there have been times when I wanted to. I miss Bill fiercely.

Lest I give the wrong impression, Nick, for his part, has been fantastic. He knows that this has been hard for me, this balance of grieving and being there for him and the girls and making sure that the house-stuff functions as it should. We’ve talked many times, and he has done his damndest to support me. He knows that I’m sad, too.

But the thing is… No one else seemed to realize it. Whenever Bill’s death would come up in conversation, people would – rightly – jump in and ask how Nick was handling things. They’d maybe ask about the girls. They would offer their condolences. But very few people asked how I was handling things.

True story: people showed me more support and empathy when we lost Madison than when we lost Bill. Now, for sure, Maddy was tremendous, and I was heartbroken to see her go. But losing our dog wasn’t exactly in the same league as losing Bill.

In fact, not only did people not acknowledge that Bill’s death was hard for me, too, they purposely minimized it. When I saw the doctor for my bronchitis, he – very kindly – warned me that I was more susceptible to illness because of the stress in our lives. Then he said (and I quote, for real), “Even if it’s only your father-in-law, you’re still feeling that stress, so you need to take care of yourself.”

Even if it’s only my father-in-law.

Clearly, losing one’s spouse’s parent doesn’t even register on the list of things to feel sad about; who on earth would feel sorrow at the loss of a parent-in-law?? Which means that there’s not a whole lot of support offered to those in my position. We become invisible – necessary, helpful, but invisible. And yet, in reality, this has been the most difficult, most raw, most heartbreaking experience of my life. I cannot do this without support. I cannot do it without grieving.

But how was I supposed to grieve – while keeping our lives humming along – if no one even recognized that I could be grieving? How could they possibly offer strength and encouragement when it didn’t even occur them that I might need it, because it’s “only” my father-in-law? And how on earth was I supposed to explain that I needed it? It’s not really common practice to enter a room or a gathering of friends and gamely announce, “Hey, y’all. Rough waters. I need help.”  I debated pinning a button to my shirt that said, “I’m really sad because I lost someone important to me. Even if you don’t realize that he was important to me, he was. So I’m sad.” But that didn’t feel quite right.

To be clear, I was not wanting people to emphatically throw their arms around me and forget about Nick. He absolutely, justly, deserves and needs people’s support, sympathy, words of love, prayers, shoulders to cry on, proffered glasses of whiskey, and whatever else they would like to give. I have never wanted Nick to be unnoticed, nor for me and my desires to trump his. And, sure, if you want to get technical about it, I’ll grant you that he possibly deserves those things “more” than I do. Like I said, he’s experiencing a kind of sadness that I cannot truly comprehend. I am not comparing me to him.

But I’m still awfully damn sad, and I needed support.

That was what this post was originally going to be about – about my explaining why this was so hard for me, saying that no one gets that I’m upset, too, and to please acknowledge that this really, really sucks. But then two things happened: I wrote about Bill, and I spent some time with a wonderful friend. And now, this post is about something else. Or it’s about to be. Hang on.

Although I’ve been talking to, and seeking support from, friends and family on the phone and online, it just wasn’t enough, and my therapist strongly encouraged me to chat with someone face to face. I knew just the person – a new-ish but already very dear friend – and we tried for weeks to find a night to go out, but our schedules just didn’t mesh. At last, ten days ago, the stars aligned and we grabbed dinner at a local restaurant… and something changed.

She listened – really listened – to everything I had to say. About how stressful it was running the house, about how worried I was for the girls and for Nick, about how very sad I was about Bill but how no one even acknowledged that I could be sad, and I didn’t know what to do. She offered advice. She commiserated. But, most of all, she listened, and I felt heard – and , for the first time since Bill’s death, I felt un-crazy for being so sad. I felt supported. And I felt so very much better, like maybe I can make it through this after all.

Thank god for awesome friends.
And delicious Greek food the night before a five day juice cleanse.

Right around that time, I decided to write about Bill – because, even if no one understood that he could be that important to me, he was that important to me, and I just needed to say it. So I did. And, really… saying it made all the difference. That may be a cliché, but it’s true. Talking about Bill was so freeing, so good; writing let me get it out. As friends began reading the post, I – finally! – felt heard. People got it – no button-pinning necessary.

While I appreciated the catharsis, I didn’t expect to learn something in return. As friends commented about the post on Facebook, however, I came to understand how truly rare Bill’s and my relationship was, and how very, very lucky I am. Apparently, most people truly don’t mourn the loss of their parents-in-law the way that I am. They have a different kind of relationship with their in-laws, and when they die, profound sadness is – according to them – pretty unusual.

I guess, because I loved Bill so deeply, I couldn’t quite understand why people didn’t offer me an, “I’m so sorry, Emily” or “But how are you doing?” Now, I know differently. Now, when someone learns that I’ve lost my father-in-law and they don’t acknowledge that it’s my loss, too, I know it’s not because they don’t care (unless they’re just, like, jerks), but because they don’t know. I no longer become hurt or frustrated; instead, I try to count my blessings. I am reminded of how exceptionally fortunate I was to have loved Bill as I did, and to have been loved by him in return, and I am profoundly grateful. Gratitude is a pretty powerful thing.

So… if I’m all good, then why write this at all? Well, because I’m not all good. Yes, I no longer feel so alone, but this grief thing is still a load of crap. Even though not everyone understands having a fantastic relationship with one’s in-laws, everyone, on some level, can understand grief. And it’s just absurd to be putting constraints on grief based on preconceived notions of how someone should feel, or how close someone was “supposed” to be to the deceased. It’s high time we stopped doing it.

When my BFF Kiki lost her dad in the spring of 2006, there was absolutely no doubt that my mom, my stepdad, Nick and I would attend his funeral. John was very special to me; I’d known him my whole life, and his death hit me hard. Moreover, he was my oldest, awesomest friend’s father. She wanted me there, and I wanted to be there – for me as well as for her. No questions asked.

That is, until I returned to my classroom (after having called in a sub) and had to explain my absence. I’d already used up my personal days for the year, so taking a day “just because” wasn’t acceptable. I suppose I could have lied and said I was sick, but that was, you know, wrong, so I applied for a bereavement day instead. A couple of weeks later, I was contacted by the HR department to clarify my relationship to the deceased. You see, “best friend’s father who I have known my whole life and loved dearly” just didn’t cut it.

On the other hand, if John had been my parent, or my parent-in-law, or my cousin or my uncle, that would have been fine… even if he and I had hardly spoken over the years and I was taking the day off because I’d heard the food at the reception would kick butt. I puzzled over the form for the longest time, becoming more and more annoyed and angry with each passing minute. Who were they to determine what relationships were special enough to warrant “needing” a bereavement day? Who were they to tell me who I should, and shouldn’t, grieve? Who are we, as a society, to be doing the same?

I call bull.
Grief is grief. It is not something to be quantified or compared, but is our own, and only we know how deeply it affects us. Whether someone lost a spouse or a child or a third cousin once-removed or a childhood babysitter, grief is painful and it is real. People who are grieving deserve respect and support.

In the end, I decided that my sadness was real, and so was my relationship to John… or, should I say, “Uncle John.” Bereavement day granted.

And so this is why I decided to write this post: to propose three things. First, if you are grieving, please talk to someone. Whether that’s in person or via email or snail mail or in a blog entry that the entire world can read, talk. Get it out. Say something. Say anything. That, alone, can be so very therapeutic.

Secondly, if you learn that someone has recently experienced the death of a family member or friend, ask how they are. Don’t put constraints on their grief. Don’t assume that, because they lost a parent, they’re wallowing in sorrow and can hardly get out of bed. Don’t assume, because it’s “only” an in-law or an uncle or a 95 year-old great-grandparent who’d “lived a long, happy life,” that the person isn’t enormously sad. Don’t assume, period. Instead, ask. A simple, “How are you doing?” opens the door for the person to spill their soul to you or mutter, “Fine, thanks,” but at least it allows them to determine how they’re doing, rather than you doing it for them.

And finally, after you do ask how someone is doing, listen. Really listen. Let them talk – or not – and be there while they do. Let them know that you hear them, that they’re not alone, that you support and love them, that this sucks, but you’re there. Listen.

By doing so, we can all become a little less invisible. And, with time, a little bit better.

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