How can I help my grieving daughter-in-law?

I feel awful there isn't more I can do

By Cary Tennis

Published April 12, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Dear Reader,

As you may know, in addition to writing this column for Salon, I also give writing workshops and creative getaways and publish books. I send out a newsletter to let interested people know about what's coming up.

But here's the deal. I had a big email crash. I lost a lot of email addresses and records of correspondence. And I'm trying to put my email list back together. I'm trying to make sure that everyone who was on it before gets on it again.

So two things: One, if you're not on it already, please join my mailing list. It is a really wonderful way to stay in touch outside of this column.

Two, in putting the list back together, if you and I have corresponded in the past, I may send you a note asking if you want to be on the list. If you want to join, there will be an easy way to do it. If you're already on it, or have unsubscribed already, please excuse the intrusion. I'm mainly trying to make sure everybody who did want to be on the list is still on it.

Now to the letter.

Dear Cary,

I always appreciate your philosophical approach to helping people reflect on their problems, and I am interested in hearing your thoughts on mine. How does one support another in grief? I actually am pretty good, I think, in the short run, in the immediate aftermath. I'm a good listener, I share my good memories of the deceased, I don't try to downplay the pain or offer platitudes, and I do my best to sound out and anticipate what is actually needed rather than just lamely saying, "If you need anything ..." which puts the burden on the grieving person to ask for help, and I try to use my own experience of grieving when my parents died to support others. But in the long run, I'm not sure what is right.

Almost three years ago, my daughter-in-law's younger brother died in a tragic accident when he was only 20. I never realized the kind of void that's created by the death of a young person. Suddenly, all of the assumptions about the future are destroyed. Even my husband and I, though we barely knew the young man (in part because we assumed that we had all the time in the world to get to know him) had to adjust the future we imagined -- in which he was the uncle of our future grandchildren and the father of their cousins. For my daughter-in-law, it has been devastating, made worse, I think, by her feeling that it was supposed to be her job to take care of her little brother, and not ever let anything bad happen to him. She was in no way responsible for his fatal accident.

My son has told both my husband and our other son, that she is still "having a hard time." She is in therapy. She does function well. She has a job, she has hobbies, and she and my son have a reasonably active social life. But at the same time, I know she is still grieving, and I'm sure at some level always will. When our other son got married recently, I could tell that she was having a hard time holding it together during some of the wedding festivities. My son told my husband that she was sad thinking about how she would never be at her own brother's wedding.

I don't avoid talking about her brother, I have a photograph of her and her brother displayed in our home, at the wedding of my other son I put my arm around her as she cried (but, of course, many of us were in tears -- it was a wedding, after all), and once recently when we were having a family get-together and I could tell she was trying to keep from crying I went over to her quietly and said, "You look so sad, I wish I could do something for you." She didn't say anything -- I couldn't tell if she thought I was being intrusive or not.

The anniversary of her brother's death is coming up soon. It is made more difficult by the fact that it is near her birthday, and the birthdays of many in the family. Additionally, his birthday falls on a holiday. So, again, my question is, how do I support her in her grief? Do I write a letter saying I remember the anniversary of his death and that I know she is still grieving? I know I am powerless in the face of death but I still want to do something. I want to be there for her.

Sad, Too

Dear Sad, Too,

Well, for starters, I must thank you for what you said about not saying, "If you need anything ..." That is very insightful. When we are clobbered by grief, we don't know what we need or how to ask for it. If an elbow is proffered maybe we lean on it. But if we had to say, "Would you please proffer your elbow so I may lean on it, because I'm grieving and it would make me feel better, even though technically I am able to stand and walk just fine ..." well, that just is not likely to happen.

Sometimes a helping hand, extended without being requested, and without being mentioned, is about the sweetest, most helpful and touching thing one could want. And knowing how to do that is a beautiful thing.

You have a great grasp of the essentials -- that when one is grieving one needs support in ways one doesn't expect to need support, and in ways that are hard to ask for. One needs support without a lot of to-do.

As I read through the rest of your letter, I honestly don't think I have much to add. You're handling it very well. But here is one thing I can think of that may help in the long term: Just never forget. She may be grieving for a long time; let her grieve as long as she grieves. There may come a time when other people have moved on and yet she is still raw. Three years from now, five years from now, a decade from now, everyone else may have moved on, yet her wound may still be fresh. It takes as long as it takes. Keep doing what you are doing, remain alert to her fragile feelings, and remember that her sadness will last a long time.

You know, when bad things happen sometimes we feel bad for a long time -- and that should be the title of a self-help book: "When Bad Things Happen Sometimes We Feel Bad for a Long Time." By Cary Tennis.

Yeah. I should write that.

Like I said, you're doing great. There's not much more you can do. Just keep being human. Just don't stop. The one thing you can do is remember when others forget.

Write Your Truth.

Want more?


Cary Tennis

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