When my husband died, our wedding anniversary was forever changed. The looked-forward-to date that used to celebrate the joining of our two lives became a date I dreaded. It was another sharp reminder that the man I’d shared my life with would no longer be part of our future plans, that the father of my children — the only person who knew and loved them as much (and as well) as I did — was gone.
Wedding anniversaries have been on my mind a lot lately. One of my daughters recently married — a joyous occasion!– and my own 30th anniversary is approaching.
So when Shellie posted this comment (see Anniversary after Death) …
My father-in-law passed away March 31 and this June would have been my in-laws 50th wedding anniversary. I want to acknowledge the day, but I am unsure what would bring my mother-in-law any peace or happiness on this difficult day (I feel I should have some kind of idea since my husband and I have lost two children but a wedding anniversary is completely different, and I am at a loss), any advice would be greatly appreciated.
… I had to give more than a brief reply.
Shellie, I hope you’ll forgive my turning your request into a public post. (Everyone else, I hope you’ll forgive me for addressing the rest of this post directly to her.)
I’m sorry for the loss of your father-in-law. I remember how it felt to me (and still feels) after my father-in-law passed, but I can only begin to imagine how much harder it must be for you while also feeling for your husband in his grief. (My late husband passed before his father.) And I’m deeply sorry to learn that two of your children have died. That’s a degree of loss I cannot fathom.
But I can speak as a widow. Thank you for already looking for ways to reach out to your mother-in-law as her anniversary approaches. You are right that “a wedding anniversary is completely different,” but loss is loss.
Chances are, the kinds of things your friends and family say or do that have brought you peace after your children’s deaths (as much semblance of peace as is possible) are the same kinds of things your mother-in-law needs from you.
Keep in mind, though, that whereas you and your husband share the devastating loss of your two children, your mother-in-law now shares her wedding anniversary with no one.
It’s possible the days leading up to the date may be as difficult for her as the day itself. With her loss so recent, “peace or happiness” may or may not be yet within her ability to appreciate while shock is still ever-present.
You’ve already expressed your desire to acknowledge the day, and that’s one of the best things you can do. Let her know ahead that you’re aware the anniversary is coming. Let her know you realize it will be a difficult, emotional day. If you live near enough to be with her in person, be there. Regardless of your distance or proximity, send her a card or handwritten note that will arrive on (or before) the anniversary. (“Thinking of you on your anniversary” is a better greeting choice than “Happy anniversary.”)
Above all, listen to her.
If she says she needs space or solitude, respect whatever boundaries she expresses, but keep communication open. (So far, solitude is what I’ve most wanted on my widowed anniversaries, but not everyone feels as I do.) If your mother-in-law says she wants to spend the day by herself, be sure you call to let her know you’re still available if she changes her mind.
Ask if she has ways she’d like to remember or reminisce on that day — IF she wants to discuss them. For some newly widowed, sharing memories is a comforting, healing process. For others, it’s too painful for a while. Again, listen to what she says.
Your mother-in-law might be too overwhelmed by grief to initiate suggestions, so consider offering ideas. Suggest a favorite (or new) restaurant with a friend, a quiet dinner with family, an afternoon involved in a favorite hobby, looking through old photo albums, reminiscing … The options will vary based on what you know of her and her late husband.
Some widows and widowers spend their anniversaries doing service activities in their late spouses’ memories or visiting places they once enjoyed together for old times’ sakes. I know others who spend their wedding anniversaries trying something new, just for themselves.
If your mother- and father-in-law made plans for how they would commemorate their golden anniversary, find out whether she wants to fulfill them (in whole or in part). Doing so might give her a sense of carrying his memory forward with her — or it may be too painful without him. (Again, listening to her is essential.)
Unless she requests it, a party is probably not something she will be up to this soon after his death. (I had difficulty mingling in public for most of the first year after my husband died — and at times it is still hard five and a half years later.) Avoid surprise parties. Emotions are too on the surface. Of the thousands of widows and widowers I’ve networked with, I have yet to hear of any appreciating surprise parties of any kind.
I hope this gives you some ideas of how to help your mother-in-law through her 50th anniversary, Shellie, but you were already on the right track before you posted your comment. You already knew she needs acknowledgment that she and her husband spent half a century together.
And that’s a beautiful thing.
Thanks, Teresa. This is great reminder that grief, while universal, is deeply personal and unique to everyone. We should never assume our responses on others, but have the sensitivity to meet individual needs in empathy and love.
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Thank you so much. This is just what I needed. My dad passed away on June 17. October 19th would have been mom and dads 59th anniversary and I’ve been wondering if I should send an anniversary card or not. Your advice makes total sense. Thank you so much.
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I’m so sorry about your father’s recent death, Kathy. I can’t begin to imagine what it would have been like to have shared nearly 59 years together. It’s good that you’re already thinking of how to offer your support to your mother even while you’re grieving your own loss.