She was like a mother to me

My mother-in-law filled in for the mother I wish I had. Now she's dead and I'm blinded by grief

Published June 6, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I feel like I am in a big, dark hole. I am what people refer to as a homemaker because my job is to make a home for my daughters and husband. I don't even know what that means anymore. I have been doing it for so long that I just do it.

Everything feels monochromatic. I put this here, clean that, wash this. Most things remain half done.

I am becoming alarmed that sometimes I feel nothing. I have been getting upset at my kids more than usual, and it makes me feel badly.

I have everything I ever wanted: A husband who loves me, a good sex life, healthy children, my own home, a college degree. But I am so lonely.

I feel terrible because I am so lucky and I don't appreciate it. I look at the world and I do not understand the intolerance of others. I can not comprehend a world where schoolkids get shot in the face.

I look to the future and feel a bit hopeless.

The best I feel is when my husband is home and we are together as a family. But even that bright spot has dulled.

Recently we lost my husband's mother to a sudden heart attack, and I loved her. The best part is that she loved me too. She taught me a lot about being a mother, and was the best grandmother to my girls. She thought I was a good mother, and she told me often. She was happy I married her son. She thought he was lucky to have me, which is the opposite of what my own family thinks. She appreciated all these tiny things about me that nobody else noticed. Buying her special little gifts gave me great pleasure.

I don't know if her death is why I have felt so lost lately. I feel strange mourning her so much because she was not my mother. My mother is alive, and I question whether or not she even likes me.

I should be enjoying my children more, and I should be embracing my life. I am stuck in neutral. I just turned 40.


A Sad Mother

Dear Sad Mother,

You have lost someone very dear to you. She was caring. She was a good teacher. She saw you in a way few others did. And she was an ally for you in the family.

Losing a person like that would be difficult under the best of circumstances. But it's more complicated because she wasn't your natural mother. Her death throws you back on the fact that you have a difficult relationship with your own mother. The meaning of the loss is magnified. And you can't turn to your own mother for solace. The one you could turn to is gone.

You may be grieving intensely. You may be experiencing what is called "complicated grief." You may be depressed. It's sometimes hard for professionals to know where the dividing line is between grief and depression. So I certainly can't pretend to know. But I do know that you are in pain, and in my experience talking with professionals helps. I suggest you talk about what you are feeling with a licensed clinical psychologist, psychotherapist or psychiatrist.

Your mother-in-law's death is not the only reason you are unhappy. For some time now you have been going through the motions of being a homemaker without meeting your other needs for companionship and care. It's likely, since you sound like a bright and interesting person, that you have sacrificed some of your own intellectual or artistic interests as well.

So make an appointment to talk with someone about this.

It is time to look at your own life. It is time to ask, in a safe, compassionate place, how you ended up here and where you are going. Why have you made the choices you have made? What is the deeper meaning of all this? What do you deserve? How can you make your needs known to others? It may be painful at first, but if you ask these questions you will uncover your own story, and you will find the energy and strength you need for yourself, for your children and for your future.

By Cary Tennis

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