Learning to communicate with your in-laws following the death of your partner
Following the death of a partner, Solo Moms find themselves navigating rapidly shifting familial sands. Among the most difficult of these challenges is the evolving relationship with in-laws.
A Solo Mom will have her own preexisting relationship with her deceased partner’s family. She may be very close to them or rather distant—or somewhere in between. Often a relationship continues in a similar vein to the one that existed before the death in question. But this is never set in stone. There is room for movement if both parties desire to make it work and show one another absolute respect.
As a bereaved Solo Mom of bereaved children, your priority is to care for your kids and for yourself. All others must take a backseat. This is the new landscape of seemingly impossible choices.
This article assumes that everyone involved exhibits mutual respect and is trying to forge ever-closer family bonds.
In-laws may seek to help the Solo Mom cope, and she may want their help; or either party may be deep in personal grief and unable to reach out, which can be wounding or call up a complex range of emotions. In a crisis, at the very time when open communication would be the most helpful, it often becomes the most stilted.
As time goes on, all parties will face certain challenges. New realities and painful truths are apparent in this equation. Life events will take place—career opportunities, a Solo Mom dating again—and bring a variety of issues into sharper focus. Relations between members of an extended family do better when such issues (which may be painful) are broadly supported. Younger widows have a different range of possibilities than their older counterparts.
If you are a Solo Mom and you wish to consider ways to integrate in-laws into your life as you move forward, consider these specific points as you communicate and visit with your in-laws:
- The children are paramount. You are acting with absolute love and integrity toward all parties when you maintain and strengthen the bond with your in-laws in the absence of the deceased partner. This is a generous gift with indescribable potential significance for your kids. In an ideal world, these family members love your children more than anyone else except you and your own family of origin.
- It is appropriate for you to establish comfortable boundaries. When planning a visit, you should consider the length of the stay and decide how you will be most comfortable. Will you stay with your in-laws or opt for a local hotel or other option? Take into account your finances, the ages of your children, and your own preferences, and do whatever feels right to you.
- Generational gaps can compromise communication about death. Many older people are less comfortable discussing emotions and complex interpersonal relationships than are their daughters-in-law. Be mindful of this, and try not to let misunderstandings taint your overall relationship as you strive to serve your children as a Solo Mom. The effort to preserve the relationship, if desired and possible, honors the memory of your deceased partner. You are sharing—so generously—your partner’s legacy with his or her family of origin.
- Consider having a session with a family therapist. Meeting with a family therapist may help to facilitate communication during difficult times. Your in-laws must now see and respect you as an individual with many competing responsibilities. You can ask them for help in various ways, and opening channels of communication is helpful in this regard.
- Respect their role in the lives of your children. Understand that your partner’s family shares your deep grief. In sharing the children of your union, you are uniquely placed to offer more healing than anyone else. Remember, too, that this gift, no matter how precious, may sting—for you and for them. They are parents who have lost a child. This is not supposed to happen. Their lives have stopped in a very real way.
- Establish text contact with friends. If you anticipate having a range of emotions on your visit, give some good friends advance notice that you may be texting them for support. Ask them to watch for texts and to respond. One of the many great aspects of text messaging is that one can maintain a (sometimes sanity-saving) conversation with another person without completely withdrawing from a room.
- Set aside some Solo-Mom time during the visit. Give yourself permission to leave the kids with the in-laws and take a break. Go for a walk. This will allow you some psychic space to decompress somewhat. In addition, it gives the children an opportunity to be with their grandparents and extended family and establish their own relationships.
- Make sure to be on the same page regarding death-related questions. Have a conversation with your in-laws regarding what information has been shared with your children about the death of their parent. Make sure to articulate special concerns you might have so that no one accidentally oversteps and shares information with which you are not comfortable.
In-laws may provide a vital perspective on the deceased. After all, no one remembers infancy like a parent, and an aunt can shed light on youthful misdeeds. These are important dimensions for a child to access following the death of a parent. It also removes some of the stress from a Solo Mom of being the sole imparter of information about the deceased.
Navigating this path is difficult. Children—and Solo Moms—have much to gain when all parties show mutual respect.
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Tara Shafer is the cofounder of Reconceiving Loss, an online resource center for families coping with pregnancy and infant loss. She is a contributing blogger to the Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and BabyCenter. Her work has appeared in the New York Times and on National Public Radio. You can follow her on Twitter at @reconceivinglos.
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