“Your life is about to fall apart, you’re going to get divorced, and things will never be the same,” is what my wife’s cousin could have said.
But she didn’t. She told me in vague and confusing ways that we’d lost my father-in-law without warning and that I needed to tell his daughter.
She had to be mistaken. We had just had dinner with him the night before and he was the same great guy I’d known for a decade. He was fine!
It doesn’t always make sense when people die. I don’t think it makes sense for people even when they see it coming.
But sometimes we don’t see it coming.
We just wake up and have the same kind of day we always do. And then someone surprises us with a phone call.
And now, even though the earth will need to spin a billion more times before you can finally process it, you know: Everything is different now.
And it’s true. Everything you think and feel now has a new layer in it. Something uninvited. And it casts shadows. And makes things heavier.
The day my father-in-law died was the day my marriage died. I just didn’t know it yet.
Hold On, Don’t Let Go
One of my favorite cousins got married two Saturdays ago and I was fortunate enough to attend the wedding. It was the first day of my summer vacation visiting family and friends.
It was my second wedding since my divorce.
They feel different now.
I used to go to weddings and (even if I was wrong) I just knew they were going to be married forever. Now, it’s not like that. Statistically, one of the two marriages I’ve witnessed as a single guy will end in heartbreak and misery.
There are all these themes of love and loyalty and togetherness at weddings. All this talk of unselfishness and service and forgiveness.
It’s the kind of stuff most people tune out as they smile and take photos for Instagram and Facebook while looking forward to the party afterward.
I used to be just like that. But then my marriage died and all the symbolism and messages of love took on much deeper meaning. The sacredness of the occasion feels much greater now.
I look at these two people and (even if I’m wrong) I just know they have no idea what they’re in for.
Probably not soon.
Once complacency or resentment or sadness or grief sets in. My cousin is very close to her mother—my aunt. She moved to Florida a few years ago for all the same reasons I did after graduating college. Her daughter missed her very much. Would start crying the day BEFORE she or her mother would have to say goodbye to one another during visits, which is why my aunt moved back home.
It’s a beautiful mother-daughter bond. And one of them will have to say bye to the other someday. No one gets forever in this life.
My cousin is going to break on the inside when she loses her mother. She has a dad and brother, too. And lots of friends and other family members. Loss is part of life, but it’s one we don’t think about until it sucker punches us without warning.
Will her new husband know what to do when that day comes?
How could he?
I shook hands yesterday with a man at his wife’s funeral. I hugged his three daughters, all standing next to their husbands in the receiving line. And as much as I attempted to focus on these women trying to cope with and process the loss of their mother, I spent most of the time thinking about these husbands.
I can’t be certain this will be their greatest tests as husbands, but I’m pretty sure it will be their biggest one yet.
In Good Times, and In Bad
This is what we promise standing on that alter or in front of whoever is officiating our marriages.
We know there will be good days AND bad days, but we’re going to love our partners forever, no matter what. At least, that’s what we all say.
But then shit hits the fan without warning and life gets really inconvenient and THAT’s when we’re measured.
Everyone grieves differently.
I don’t know what I was expecting from my wife when she lost her father, but it wasn’t what I got. She seemed like a different person. One who no longer wanted me around. She said as much about a month into the grieving process.
I don’t know what the optimum way would be to deal with that, but I chose the wrong way. I moved into the guest room and felt sorry for myself every day until she left a year and a half later.
I would advise against that strategy.
I don’t know what it will look and feel like when your spouse or partner loses someone close to them. But it’s safe to assume they will hurt and feel brokenness on the inside. They’re going to feel lost and scared because they won’t feel like themselves anymore and that’s a terrifying experience.
I wish I could tell you what to do. How to make everything okay for your partner and you.
But there are no instruction manuals for this stuff. There are no blueprints to follow.
I thought it was unfair that because my wife was sad about losing her father that I had to be treated like a leper. So instead of being strong and EVERY DAY asking: “What can I do to make your day better?,” I pouted like an asshole instead of asking myself the hard questions about why my wife wasn’t coming to me for comfort.
When your spouse is grieving, this is NOT your time. This is THEIR time. Put them first. They hurt very badly. And you need to be the rock they can lean on instead of selfishly hoping he or she gets over it soon so your life can get comfortable again.
I write it a lot: Love is a choice.
When your spouse isn’t his or her fun self anymore and they don’t make you feel good because they’re lost in a vortex of emotion that changes day to day and they don’t know how to manage their own feelings, let alone yours, it’s easy to throw up your hands months later:
“Does she really think this is more important than our marriage?”
“If she’s not going to try, why should I?”
“Why is she doing this to me?”
The Moment of Truth
No one’s out to get you, and unless you and your spouse are master communicators (and you’re not, otherwise there wouldn’t be any problems) about half the things you believe your spouse is thinking and feeling are wrong. We’re sometimes bad guessers.
The phrase “The moment of truth” originated in Spanish bullfighting, referring to the moment in a bullfight in which the matador is about to make the kill.
Specifically, the dictionary tells us it’s “The moment at which one’s character, courage, skill, etc., is put to an extreme test; critical moment.”
When your partner is grieving and you feel your life unraveling because you don’t know how to help them, and you’re hurting yourself because you feel the relationship slipping away—it’s your moment of truth.
Theoretically, it won’t be the only one.
It’s hard to put yourself on the back burner and selflessly love without asking for anything in return.
But that’s what it takes. It’s a test of your character.
And you’re afraid. So afraid. Because you don’t know if the sacrifice is going to pay off because you’re not promised love and loyalty in return. It’s a test of your courage.
No one teaches us how to do this. To serve others at the expense of our own comfort, and sometimes, happiness. It’s a test of your resourcefulness. A test of your skill.
Because you’re being put to an extreme test.
And it’s a critical moment.
And many of us don’t make it.
Because we’re lost.
Because we’re not heroes.
But maybe you are.
And even if you’re not—maybe you can choose to be.