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The Right to Grieve

Two weeks ago, my mother-in-law passed away at the age of 93. She had an amazing life, raising three children to be decent, God-fearing human beings. She was a wonderful cook, and introduced me to the good, old fashioned Sunday lunch. She didn't know how to cook for a small group of people, so the table was always overflowing with the most delectable homemade Southern dishes, including barbecue, baked beans, chicken salad, and my daughter's personal favorite, broccoli with homemade cheese sauce. The first time I was invited to Sunday lunch, I was informed (only half-jokingly) that they didn't normally have bread on the table. I felt so special!

She was an accomplished seamstress, serving as the official dress designer for the NC Azalea Festival Queen for years. One of her gowns was actually worn to the Oscars in the 1970s, although I don't know who wore it. My children benefitted from her talents every Halloween, and I still have all of the beautiful costumes she made every year. Many people don't know this, but I actually met her before I met her son, when she altered a gown for me when I was 15 years old. I remember that day vividly, having no idea that she would one day become family.

Even though she lived a full, long life, I was devastated when I got the call from my son that she had suddenly declined and was not going to make it. I sat by the phone all weekend, crying off and on, waiting for updates from the kids, trying to be there for them. My son is living in Ithaca while attending Cornell, and he had exams, so he couldn't even be here. My daughter, who hates hospitals and anything to do with illness and death, rose to the challenge and spent hours at the hospital and then at the Hospice Care Center, providing support to her dad and his siblings as they prepared to say goodbye to the family matriarch. I was not there.

Here's the thing. She's not my mother-in-law. Not anymore. Sadly, my husband and I divorced in 2014. It wasn't how I had envisioned my life, but life doesn't always ask us what we want, does it? In my eyes, though, family is family. Divorce doesn't change that. At least that's the way I see it, but that doesn't mean that's the way everyone else feels. After all, I'm the one who left, so I will always be the "bad guy", even if it's only in my own mind.

I could have gone to see her. It would have been okay. Awkward, but okay. Somehow, though, I didn't feel like I had the right to. Just like I felt I didn't have the right to use my ex-husband's last name after the divorce, again because I was the one who left. But this wasn't something as simple as a name. This was saying goodbye to someone I loved, the mother of someone I had loved and was married to for 18 years, the grandmother to my two children. Still, I felt it was not my place to take away from even one moment of the time that her children and grandchildren had left with her.

When do we forfeit the right to grieve a loved one? I realized that the answer is never. We just grieve differently. We say our goodbyes from a distance, knowing that in some way that is beyond our understanding, they will hear us. So I spent that weekend with my phone at my side so that my children knew I was there if they needed me, looking at our wedding album, photos of her with the children, reliving 39 years' worth of memories, some happy, some sad, some funny, and yes, some of the typical memories one has of their mother-in-law, like that time I had just given birth and she wanted to come visit while he was asleep and absolutely would NOT take no for an answer. Some memories made me smile, some brought tears, and many of them filled me with regret over things that if I had the chance to do them over again I would do completely different.

I was lucky to know her, and whenever I hear a pageant contestant butcher a song, I will hear her Snow White-esque voice saying, "Why didn't her mama love her?" Rest well, Betty Lou. You left the world a better place.




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