My husband and I are at that age where if parents of our contemporaries haven’t yet passed away, they’re dying now. This past year, our sister-in-law’s parents both died, as did a dear friend’s mother.
Saturday night, it was our turn. At age 93, my mother-in-law passed away. It wasn’t entirely unexpected. She’d been in ill health and suffered from severe dementia. By the time she died, I’m not even sure she knew who my husband was.
Watching my husband grieve has reminded me that when a parent dies who’s in awful shape, feelings of love and loss comingle with relief. At last, the parent is no longer suffering or living with a dramatically diminished quality of life.
But when a parent-child relationship has been complicated, as theirs was, the emotional head winds are even fiercer. My mother-in-law did not like children, and she had four of them. She came of age when that’s what women did—they got married and had children, whether or not they were brilliant students (as she was) and whether or not they would have preferred to pursue a professional career and be child-free.
I know that my mother-in-law wanted to connect with her children and later her grandchildren, but she simply couldn’t. As my husband’s younger sister said, her message was, “I love you. Now can you get out of here?”
I grieve for her woundedness that made her incapable of communicating warmth and unconditional love and acceptance to her children. I grieve for the depression she sank into after the births of her third and fourth children. And obviously, I also grieve for the wounds she inflicted on my husband and his siblings. I know that it still hurts my husband that his mother did not pay much attention to him as a child, and later disapproved of his going into the arts and marrying me, a divorcee with a young child. And I know it still hurts my sister-in-law that her mother constantly referred to her as “an accident” and announced that she was appointing her as executor of her estate because after all, “you don’t have a life.”
My husband’s emotional pain has also raked up my own feelings of grief and sadness about my dad’s long ago death. When my father died, I didn’t just grieve for his loss, but for the lack of the close relationship I’d longed for when he was alive. My dad didn’t enjoy children either, and he had three of them. And like my mother-in-law, his childhood left him with wounds that made it tough for him to be a listening, accepting parent.
And so we grieve. And we hurt. Fortunately, that’s only one piece of our story. The miracle in my life is that my husband and I have given each other the gift of unconditional love and acceptance that eluded us as children. He has someone who will always be in his corner, holding him close through life’s painful passages. Me too.