To this day, I remember every detail of that phone call. It was just a few weeks after Christmas. Amidst the post-holiday haze, I was getting back into my normal weekly routine. My cell phone rang as I was checking emails at my desk. It was my husband. I remember thinking, “that’s weird, why is he calling me so early in the day.” When I heard his voice on the other end, I hardly recognized it. Through his tears, he said, “My mom died.”
Even as I write this, almost five years later, I have chills. Aside from losing grandparents, which as a young adult seemed like the natural order of things, I was in uncharted territory. We were a newly married couple in our 20s- no kids yet, working on our careers and having fun. Debbie was just 60 years old. She was kind and she loved getting the family together. In fact, we had just had dinner with her a few days earlier. We were not prepared for this. We needed her. He needed her.
The drive home from the office that day seemed like an eternity. Memories of my time with Debbie played on a loop over and over in my mind. Even worse, I had no idea what to say (or not say) to my husband. When I opened the door to our bedroom, I found my 6’2 brawny husband curled up into a ball, sobbing. I held him in my arms and we cried together.
The next few days were emotionally exhausting. We chose the coffin, the outfit she would be buried in, and made all the necessary (and gut-wrenching) arrangements. On the day of the funeral, we sat in those large plush chairs. The ones reserved for “the family.” As a young adult, I remember my parents sitting in the large plush chairs when my grandparents died. They were in their late fifties then. We were in our twenties. I remember thinking it was way too soon for us to be in the large plush chairs.
After the funeral, the world went on. But we found it hard to keep up. I was not just grieving my mother-in-law; I was grieving my husband too. Her death had changed him. His heart seemed closed and his once silly-comforting nature was gone. Selfishly, I was terrified that I had lost my husband forever.
But slowly, he came back to me.
Day by day we created our new normal. In those first few years, he rarely spoke of her (it was too hard). But her absence was felt in all the important moments. After our daughter was born, my husband started talking about his mother more. Our daughter was named after her. Her family portrait hangs in our home and every night Scarlett says “goodnight, grandma.”
Watching my husband lose his mother was the hardest season of my life. I wanted to shield him from the pain. I wanted to fix it all. I wanted him to heal and move forward. I wanted Debbie back, and I wanted our lives to go back to the days before that dreaded phone call.
But we are not the same, and I’m not sure we will ever be those care-free, pain-free people again. And despite trying, you can’t rob him (or yourself) of the grieving process. The only way out is through.
Let your partner lean into their grief.
Let them cry. Let them be angry. Let them be silent.
Do not rush them. Do not judge them.
Listen and be slow to speak.
They will come back to you, but it will take time.