Grief by Proxy

Around midnight last Thursday, my FIL died peacefully in his sleep with my husband and his sister by his bedside. He lived an incredibly full and rich life in the nine plus decades he had, but his loss has profoundly affected Sparring Partner who spent more nights than not in his room over the several months at the rest home watching either football, baseball, basketball and even the coverage of the 2012 Presidential Election.

My first official date with Sparring Partner started with us going to his parents’ house where they were having a major party to celebrate dad’s 70 birthday. It was a big deal because family flew in from the east coast to surprise him. When I walked down the stairs to the basement where the family had gathered, I was instantly immersed in the sounds of what I imagined would be similar to a noisy pub in Boston. The laughter (braying) and the *clunk* of full beer glasses which followed the din of "Cheers!" are still fresh in my head as if I had heard it last weekend, not 20-plus years ago. Maybe it’s because even when there were no extended family members around, my FIL still could summon that impression just by sitting at the head of any table.

However, even with as much personality as my FIL had, we just didn’t click. It’s not because he was ever standoffish or boring, as confirmed by the sheer number of sympathies we have been extended, which were always extended along with an amusing anecdote. I’ve had time to think about the relationship I had with my FIL and to wonder why it seemed like little more than strained politeness. Everyone around me adored him! Even from the first moment my own father was introduced to SP’s dad, they struck it off like peas in a pod.

I think much of my inability to simply LIKE him had to do with the fact he was such a boisterous and unabashed bigot. I was furious the first time he dropped the N-bomb in front of Doodicus when he was a toddler. His prejudice would come up when simply watching a football or basketball game since it would seem that most players are not Irish Catholics (who knew??). The slurs he wouldn’t even bother trying to whisper should have sent people away from him. But not here in conservative, Republican, Christian, Nebraska. My FIL would even refuse to eat Mexican dishes, because "it might affect my eyes!" Of course, then there was the time early on when he referred to Middle Easterners as "sand-n****s", and I angrily told him that I didn’t appreciate that, especially as my brother-in-law is Jordanian. He simply poo-poo’ed me with the excuse "that was different. Jordan is politically neutral."

He had a brilliant engineering and designing mind, for that no one could argue. He was considered a respected leader in our community, and a generous benefactor for the Catholic and Lutheran schools, not to mention the hospital actually dedicated a family room in their name (which was incredibly insulting personally to me as that had followed right on the heels of me being fired from the very same hospital) ("Oh, thank you Mr. and Mrs. Bigguy for the enormous financial contribution! Should we mention that we fired your daughter-in-law?"). For me, I just couldn’t get past these offenses and simply like him as everyone else seemed to do.

I will miss him, but I had to honestly admit that my emotional responses to his death have been largely triggered by Sparring Partner’s need for comfort and support, or by the children’s tears and difficult questions about why grandpa had to go to heaven. I am grieving by proxy.

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4 thoughts on “Grief by Proxy”

  1. First, I’m sorry for your family’s loss. And I think you grieving by proxy, as you put it, is perfectly okay. In a way you can probably be of more help to your spouse and kids than if you were wrapped up In your own feelings of grief. Hugs to all of you.

  2. It’s nice to read honesty about these things. Nobody’s perfect, and some people in our families we don’t personally like for valid reasons. My condolences to your family.

  3. I love a good mixed obituary. When someone dies and people say “He had good parts and bad parts,” I get way more choked up than when someone dies and suddenly was apparently perfect in every way.

  4. I know how you feel – I sort of liked my FIL sometimes, but he did some shit that I didn’t care for, so his death was not exceptionally emotional for me.

    I can sometimes overlook certain types bigotry, depending on whether it affects how the person treats others, but I don’t let it go unremarked. I had to retrain my mother from referring to her “black friend.”

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