On the Loss of My Mothers-in-Law

daniel and grandma carol

In June, my husband lost both his mom, Carol, and his stepmom, Mary — one, to cancer; the other, to Alzheimer’s. My heart breaks for him, with those two losses coming within weeks of each other.

That meant also that I lost both of my mothers-in-law, which has made me quite sad.

Mothers-in-law often get a bad rap. Movies and jokes portray them as domineering and critical or coddling their married sons or meddling far too much in the daughter-in-law’s business. When I got married and told people I had two mothers-in-law, many groaned on my behalf. But I tell you, I hit the jackpot. Twice.

As soon as Brad and I started dating, both Carol and Mary welcomed me into the family, and we enjoyed a comfortable, congenial relationship. I never felt like the outsider. Carol never made me feel like “the other women” who had “stolen” her son. Over the years, I grew to love these women as second and third moms in my life. And they loved me — and showed me often with hugs, kind words, and thoughtful gifts.

Not only that, they liked each other. How many families do you find where the ex-wife and the new wife are legitimately friendly? Carol and Mary worked together to organize our rehearsal dinner. They chatted warmly at our boys’ birthday parties. And they asked us about each other often. The love they had for us overflowed into love for each other. That was a tremendous gift to us and our children — and a testament to the kind spirit each possessed.

Sadly, we lost the ability to have conversations with Mary years ago as her Alzheimer’s progressed, leaving her essentially silent and still. But I had grown accustomed to talking to Carol regularly, particularly after we moved away several years ago. We had long conversations. I’d update her on our boys’ activities, we’d talk about my work, she’d tell me what she’d been up to (and, over the past year, what recent doctor visits or tests or procedures she’d had). We’d laugh a lot. And sometimes we’d share deeper, darker things — especially over the past months as the cancer took its toll. I miss those conversations. I miss her cheerful “Hey, sweetie” when she answered the phone (in fact, that seemed to be a theme among people at the funeral — she had that cheerful greeting for everyone).

The world feels slightly colder and grayer for the loss of the smiles and warm souls of these two women.

Years ago, a pastor preached a sermon out of Ruth and pointed out that words used at weddings, presumably speaking of the bride and groom, are actually spoken by a woman to her mother-in-law. Ruth 1:16 — “Where you go, I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God, my God.” That verse, and its real meaning, have been tucked away in my brain ever since, and it came rushing to mind as we prepared for Carol’s funeral. Although I didn’t literally follow or stay with my mothers-in-law, we definitely had a closeness and love that this scripture speaks to. I have been blessed, indeed, to call Carol and Mary “my people.”