My father-in-law passed away 25 years ago – just a few weeks away from his 33rd wedding anniversary. My in-laws are/were good people. Dutifully they performed their duties as husband and wife and as father and mother. They were church-going people and donated thousands of hours of volunteer service to their to their church and community.
While they didn’t have a terrible marriage, they didn’t have a good one, either. There was very little communication and a lack of affection in word and deed. To top it off, my mother-in-law will always avoid conflict, and my father-in-law was very quick to anger.
Soon after his death, my mother-in-law was going through his things. She found a picture of a woman in his wallet. According to a story from her sister-in-law, she assumed this was the woman who rejected him before they were married. She also assumed that he carried this picture with him throughout their entire marriage.
My mother-in-law is in her late 80s. She is afraid to die because she is questioning his loyalty to her and isn’t sure what she’ll face when she meets him again after death. She doesn’t know how to let go of the burden of feeling that he married her on the rebound and that he never really loved her.
Because my mother-in-law avoids conflict at all costs, she will never see a therapist. Yet she has trusted me with her burden. How do I help her move along? How do I help her find the peace she desires?
I can only imagine how painful it is to sit with your dear mother-in-law as she winds up her life with this dark cloud of uncertainty hanging over her. She is fortunate to have your love and support so she doesn’t have to bear this alone. Let’s talk about how you can best help her.
There are several unknowns, which makes this situation so painfully tragic. She can only assume things about who this other woman is, how long he had that photo in his wallet, what kind of feelings he may have had for her, and so on.
We think in stories, and since our minds don’t tolerate uncertainty very well, we often make up endings to create closure. Since neither of you know the truth of what really happened, it’s not helpful to help her write a positive spin to this story.
Instead, validate how scary this is for her to not know the truth of what happened. Leave room for uncertainty, and don’t offer false hope about what did or didn’t really happen. If you put a positive spin on this for her, she won’t really believe you anyway, so just let it be and emphasize that it’s so hard to know what really happened.
You have to remember that this sweet woman has spent her entire life making the uncertain certain by avoiding conflict in her marriage and other relationships. Instead of sitting with tension, discomfort and uncertainty throughout her life, she has numbed out those important human emotions by going into a state of denial.
Now that she can’t avoid this reality, she’s experiencing tremendous fear and suffering. She’s about to reunite with her deceased husband and now has to face reality. Even though she’s terrified of this inevitable reality, she will eventually discover the peace that follows facing the truth.
The scripture that says that “the truth will set you free” doesn’t say that knowing the truth will make us comfortable. Even though your mother-in-law chose to spend her life responding to pain by ignoring it, this is an opportunity for to learn how to feel deep pain and sorrow without escaping it.
Although it’s sad to know that she and her husband couldn’t escape their troubling marital dynamics in life, she can take charge of her own part of the dynamic in this relationship by not doing what she’s always done. It’s still worth seeking more learning and understanding about herself and how she handles emotions.
If she’s going to face her deceased husband after death, it’s important for her to emotionally prepare herself by not going back into denial. And it’s important for her to find peace in the present so she can enjoy the last few years of her life. You can help her do this by not panicking and trying to help her go into avoidance and denial. More specifically, you can validate how painful this is for her, stay with her in her pain and express confidence that she will be better off knowing the truth someday.
The only reassurance you can really offer her is that she will be better off knowing the truth. You can’t reassure her of her husband’s motives or behaviors. You can’t promise her that this won’t be a painful thing they need to work through together in the next life. You can’t free her from the choices they both made in creating the marriage they lived in for thirty-three years. So keep the focus on reassuring her of the comfort she can find as she courageously faces the truth.
Dr. Brene Brown reminds us of the following:
Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.
Even though she is experiencing this difficult and dark pain, it’s this very opposition that will bring her the peace she is seeking. Gently remind her that courageously facing these fears and uncertainty are what will ultimately give her the peace she seeks. If her husband really didn’t love her all of those years, then even though it will be a heart wrenching reality, it will also allow her to live in truth and allow her to truly heal.
There is no healing without facing the truth. She doesn’t have the answers to the full story, but she can trust that whatever happens, she can face it with courage and that this will ultimately give her the peace she seeks. Stay with her and let her lean on you for support as she learns how to stay present and build up her resolve to face reality.
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.
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