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Shut Out of Husband's Grief
Over His Dad's Death

QUESTION: My husband and I have been married two-and-a-half years, although we have been together for over eight years. Last week my father-in-law passed away from a sudden heart attack, and my husband rushed back home to be with his mother and brother. I followed the next day after organizing the care of our nine-month-old baby and our dog.

When I got there I didn't get a hug or anything -- he wouldn't leave his mother's side for two minutes to talk to me. I realize that he needs to be there for his mother to help her get through it, but I need him too, and he can't (or won't) be there for me. As of Wednesday he will have been gone for a week, and I really miss him but I can't beg him to come home.

I believe he knows that I am hurting too, but it feels like he is where he wants to be right now. I have to go through all of the grieving and loneliness alone when his mother has a support group like you wouldn't believe.

If you can offer any advice on how I can get my husband back, I would greatly appreciate it. I am very lonely without him and now I'm borderline angry about the whole thing.

ANSWER: The death of a parent is a once-in-a-lifetime event. It is natural for your husband to be absorbed in his immediate family at this time. This is a period during which your husband needs your understanding. He has lost his father at a point where his own fatherhood has just begun. Support him by putting his needs first.

Your father-in-law's death is recent and sudden. Abrupt and unexpected loss compounds grief. Your husband is in shock, as is his mother. Though you are also in mourning, it is unlikely that your anguish is as intense as his.

Connect with your husband by asking him what he needs from you now. Let him know that you are there for him in his time of need. Ask him to share his thoughts and feelings, but do not expect him to take care of you in the midst of his bereavement. Instead, develop empathy for what he and his mother must be experiencing.

Do not mourn alone. Seek support of friends and reach out to those who are not at the center of this family grief. Stay connected to your husband and his mother through efforts to support their grieving and share in their sorrow. Attend family rituals to honor your father-in-law and become a part of the process of saying your own personal farewell.

Though you are lonely for your husband, you are secure in the knowledge that he cares for you and knows that you are hurting. Delay gratifying your own needs at the expense of denying your husband the time he needs to connect with the people who were closest to his father. This does not mean that you should not reach out to your husband . . . quite the contrary. He will no doubt want your comfort in the days, weeks and months ahead.

Your jealousy of your mother-in-law is misplaced. It is unrealistic that any amount of support could ease her pain in the seven days following the traumatic loss of her husband. Your anger may be a result of feeling abandoned yourself as a new mother. Perhaps you have not yet found your own bearings after the life-changing event of childbirth. Though your feelings are understandable, it is critical that you grasp the enormity of your husband's journey through this psychological transition between generations. His ability to complete the grieving process will enrich the fatherhood he passes down to his own children.

You may remember the self-absorption required of you during labor. Realize that your husband is undergoing a labor of saying "good-bye" rather than "hello." The ability to love increases over the life span. Your husband's loss is the opportunity of a lifetime for you to stretch beyond the usual dimensions. If you succeed, you will have deepened your own capacity to love.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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