A Letter To My Mother-In-Law Who Lost Her Son

by Marjorie Brimley
Originally Published: 
A two-part collage of a mom holding her son and a little boy playing hockey in the backyard
Stefanie Harrington Photography

I sent you a card this year, like I do every year. I wrote why you are such a great mother and grandmother and I made sure the kids signed it with their wild handwriting. We bought you a present too – a gift card for a nice restaurant where you can dine with the man you married many decades ago. I think you’ll like the card and the gift, but maybe not. I’m not sure if I would like them if I was in your shoes. I’m not sure you’ll want that present or that card because your own son’s signature is missing on them.

I’m sorry I haven’t reached out much to you in the past few months. I wanted to, but I just couldn’t. I imagined you working in your garden, or hanging laundry out to dry, or doing other work around the farm, and I thought almost daily about how you were doing. But I didn’t make many calls or send many texts. I don’t have a good excuse. But I do know that ever since we watched my husband – your son – suffer and die in the hospital on that cold January day, things have not been easy for either of us.

I know that you grieve for your son. You are a mother, and since I am one too, you’d think that I’d understand the pain of losing a child. But I am going to be honest here. Since the day I lost my husband, I never stopped to wonder whether my pain was worse. I was the one who lived with my husband every day for a decade and a half, I was the one who he loved desperately, and I truly believed that I was the one who loved him the most.

I know it isn’t fair, but for the past few months, I’ve often felt like my own grief was so much more intense than everyone else’s, including yours. Our friends were sad as well, but their tears eventually dried, at least a bit, whereas mine are still coming, sometimes just as regularly as they did in January. You live far away, across an international border and in many ways in a different world than I do. And so I guess I figured that your grief had subsided too. I thought I was the only one hurting with such magnitude anymore.

I saw your emails and I read your texts over the past few months. But If I’m honest, it wasn’t until one day last week that I actually read them. By that I mean I really sat down and thought about what you had written and how you must be feeling.

My husband was mine for 15 years. But he was yours for 40.

He was the child who made you a mother, when you were still in your twenties and barely figuring out how to get by. He was the boy you nursed and the toddler you taught how to wave “bye-bye.” He was the son you stayed up with all morning after working nights as a nurse until your husband could come home to relieve you. He was the kid who cried every single day of kindergarten because he just wanted to stay home with you. He was the boy who you took on road trips each summer all over North America because you wanted him to see more than your own backyard.

He was the teenager who fought with his sisters and rebelled by getting an eyebrow ring. He was the first kid you sent to college and he was the first one you knew you would lose – at least a little bit – to marriage and a family of his own. He was the first one who told you that you were going to be a grandmother. I still remember the look on your face. He was the son you beamed about to your friends.

He was yours, too.

The thing is, I’m dealing with so much. My kids need me constantly and I’m barely holding down my job. My grief is so intense that sometimes I have to pull over when I’m driving because I can’t see through the tears. I have thought, with anger at times, that my grief is much worse than my friends and family. That it’s even worse than yours.

But it’s not a damn competition. I’m a mother too, and even though all three of my kids are still small, I know that someday they will be grown and I will still desperately love them. One time, when someone asked my husband what it was like to become a father, he said, “for the first time, I really get how my mom and dad feel about me. I understand that they actually think about me every day and that they still love me like they did when I was a kid. Because that’s how I feel about my baby. I’m always going to love her like this.”

I know that’s true for you too. Though I can’t feel your pain exactly, I know that while you knew Shawn as an adult, he was also still a 5-year old and a 15-year old to you. And you loved him, always.

As he lay dying, he asked for you. I was there, curled up next to him in that hospital bed, but he wanted you too. It was hard to share him with you then, but that was what he wanted. So that was what I wanted too.

He loved me, I know that.

But I also know this – your son loved you so much too.

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