Having someone die is hard stuff.
It doesn’t matter how much time you’ve had with them, or how long you’ve known that you would have to say goodbye. Losing someone is serious business.
A few weeks ago my mother in-law died after succumbing to a particularly virulent strain of pneumonia, which was preceded by many medical maladies, and many years of physical suffering.
Since then I have sat with my feelings, trying to comfort my husband and my children for whom the grief is immense. Next to them, my grief feels fraudulent.
When someone dies, and we love them, and they love us, and both parties know so, there is a small sense of comfort, knowing that even in our loss, we told one another how we felt. There were no secrets left unsaid in what they meant to us. But what is there to say when the relationship you had with the person who has passed left much to be desired? What do you do with all the feelings that you could have acted better, or deserved better from the person who is gone? Who do you say these non-sanctioned things to anyway? How do you receive closure for a closure-less thing?
If I were to use one word in the entirety of the English language to describe my relationship with my mother in-law it would be “Complicated”. She was a strong woman, with very definite ideas of what she wanted and how she wanted to get it, and I was a mouthy 19 year old with pretty much no ideas of my own other than that I-was-an-adult-dammit-and-no-one-was-going-to-tell-me-anything.
She never let it be easy for me, and she was hard to love despite wanting to be loved so badly.
However, I remember nice times. Like when we were in Florida and she took me to a store she frequented and helped me pick my first piece of needlepoint. Or how she would buy the most outrageous baby clothes for Sam (Burberry swim trunks, a custom made suit for an 18 month old) just because she enjoyed spoiling him. The time she told me that she didn’t think she would live to see any grandchildren, and thanked me. The Hanukkah after Sam was born when she gave me a gorgeous jewelry box engraved with my initials and a note inside that talked about looking forward to helping me fill it up.
There were also plenty of hard times. Times where I felt like if she had asked me to stand on my head, and I had then stood on my head, it would have been at the wrong angle, or the wrong time of day. Times when I felt the rumble and shake of her passive aggressive anger and worried about my choice to move to Pittsburgh, there were times when the difficulty in my relationship with her caused considerable damage to other areas of my life, and by the time she got sick this last time, it had become reflex to hold her at arms length, to find her requirements annoying, to see her as what was wrong and unwilling and to view myself as the wronged party. But things just aren’t that black and white, and they shouldn’t be.
In the last couple of years, I’d like to believe that we had come to an understanding, that we were two people who both loved the same people, even if we couldn’t get along.
If daughters in law were my mother in-laws weak point, then being a grandmother was her strong suit. She was an excellent grandmother who will be missed by my Wildlings. She was attentive and ridiculous and gave in to every whim and fancy. If my kids so much as uttered the words ‘I like’, the object of their desire would be at her house the next time we visited. When Sam became interested in hockey, he soon had a healthy collection of Penguins jerseys filling his closet. When Marilyn showed talent and inclination towards the arts, my mother in-laws dining room held a plethora of art materials. Stuffed animals and drums to bang on for Judah. Ride-on toys too big to fit through the doorways of her house were carried in sideways (by my not quite as pleased husband) and driven down her long hallways.
My complicated grief is that we couldn’t be better to one another, and now we are out of time. Why did I let all those chances go untaken, even when I knew the end was imminent? My grief is that it took the end to see how much time and energy was wasted on feeling hurt and doling out the hurt. My grief is the lesson that in this life, there are no do-overs. I never made or received my apologies, and now won’t.
Everyone handles grief differently, and that’s okay. My grief is mine, even if it is not at the forefront of anyone else’s mind. I owe it to myself to try to be kind in the wake of this life shift, in a way that I cannot properly accept yet.
It is hard to end a thought without a moral, without a succinct point made neatly, but maybe that’s fitting, grief is a messy thing after all.