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Reconnecting with former in-laws

Catherine Johnston And Rebecca Nappi The Spokesman-Review

Q. My wife and I divorced more than 20 years ago. We both remarried. Recently my former brother-in-law contacted me and he wishes to see me when he’s passing through town. My new wife is OK with it, but it still feels a little odd to me. Advice?

A. Each family situation will be unique. But we advise erring on the side of reconnecting with in-law relationships, whether those relationships were lost through death or divorce. At the end of our lives, people often regret giving up on people who meant a lot to them at one time.

That said, author Sherry Hoppe, former counselor, retired university professor and author of several books on grief, offered some good guidelines if and when you proceed.

She recommends first considering what your relationship was like when you were married to this man’s sister.

“If a strong, positive relationship existed during the marriage, and the divorce process was not hostile, there seems to be no reason for people who like and enjoy one another not to stay in contact,” she told EndNotes.

And of course, consider the wishes of your second spouse, Hoppe suggested.

It sounds as if your wife is OK with it, and this is great, but some second spouses might not be as magnanimous. So it is essential to get feedback on the decision from a second spouse.

“Children add an additional dimension to in-law relationships,” Hoppe said. “It is important to keep grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and other family members in the lives of children. Why should they have to give up strong friendships and love because their parents decided to divorce? Extended family ties should not be severed because of a divorce any more than they should after a death.”

Be prepared for the reunion to be a little awkward at first. Years have passed. People change. But don’t let the awkwardness stop you. The rewards of reconnection can spread through an entire extended family. Good luck.

Q. Twenty-five years ago, when I was 23 and single, I had a relationship with a married woman. I fell deeply in love with her, but she reconciled with her husband. I am now happily married, but recently I learned that my former lover has died. I feel heartbroken all over again. How can I heal my secret grief?

A. Why is your grief “secret”? Perhaps you never revealed this relationship to your wife. And you do not have to now, if you feel it would be detrimental. Or you may have no one to tell your story to, if this relationship felt illicit. However, grief – secret or not – deserves to be recognized and allowed in.

Perhaps it is time to acknowledge your grief as well as the gifts from the relationship.

“Sometimes when a person does not acknowledge or ‘stuffs’ their grief, another loss will trigger, or piggy-back onto the initial loss, causing intense grief,” said psychologist Phyllis Mast, who has practiced in Spokane, for more than 35 years.

Mast recommends a simple ritual to people who are grieving the loss of a loved one: Write a letter to the person – and don’t censor your thoughts or feelings.

A letter may help you through this difficult time. Reflect on your grief, but also what you learned from this woman who helped you grow and evolve. Spend time acknowledging the relationship – its joy, friendship, intimacy and gratitude. Then write about your feelings.

“I may suggest that people address the envelope with the deceased person’s name and ‘heaven,’ with no return address,” Mast said.

Some people choose to burn the letter after it is written, if they don’t mail it, Mast said.

By honoring and accepting this relationship, you may at long last acknowledge your grief and find peace.

Catherine Johnston, a health care professional from Olympia, and Rebecca Nappi, a Spokesman-Review features writer, welcome your questions about what to do in times of illness, dying, death and grief. Contact them through their EndNotes blog at blogs/endnotes.
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