A son-in-law’s grief

At approximately 5:15 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 1, my mother-in-law called me on my mobile phone as I was driving out of the parking garage at work in Midtown Atlanta.

“Lanny has been in accident,” were the words that began a journey for our family that culminated in another phone call, at about 10 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day.

“He’s gone, he’s gone, Daddy’s gone,” my wife heartbreakingly wept into the phone.

When someone has been a part of every major life event for 18 years, it's hard to say goodbye. Here, Daddy welcomes Carlton into the world in October 2008.

When someone has been a part of every major life event for 18 years, it’s hard to say goodbye. Here, Daddy welcomes Carlton into the world in October 2008.

During the last two months, our lives have been emotionally and somewhat physically upended. My mother-in-law lived at the hospital in Augusta for more than three weeks while Daddy was treated in the shock and trauma unit. Carla spent countless hours commuting back and forth to Augusta to be by her mama’s and daddy’s side. Hundreds of people supported us with childcare, meals and financial gifts to defray the cost of travel and feeding our family while Carla was out of work.

Our church family at Parkway proved that care and love was not lip service. My parents left their busy lives and commitments to come and be with us, getting the boys on and off the bus and allowing me to do my job. Our across-the-street neighbors took our boys on so many occasions I have lost count, including on Thanksgiving Day just moments after our boys learned that their grandfather had died.

This is a lot to go through, to understand, to process, to grieve. And like an actor in a supporting role, I have tried to play my part, dutifully, with strength and grace, out of the limelight but lifting up those around me.

But in the process, I fear that I have tamped down my own feelings of loss and regret.

As the son-in-law, I have no blood-relation claim to the grief that my wife carries and is so amazingly overcoming. Even my sons have certain rights, by my way of thinking, which entitle them to grieve this loss in an open way, as best as children can, according to their emotional maturity.

Please don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say: I know this is not about me. I’ve repeated that mantra so many times in the quiet moments at home around the supper table with my boys as their mother was away. I’ve whispered it to myself in hospital waiting rooms. I’ve recited it as I drove to the hospital on Thanksgiving Day, tears obscuring my vision, knowing I was about to stand with two people I love dearly and look on the face of my father-in-law who would no longer be present in that body.

I know this isn’t about me. I really do.

But how in God’s name am I supposed to feel? Am I allowed any grief? How can I ease the pain of loss that is just beneath the surface, taking all my energy to control as I navigate through my days trying to focus on working and receiving the generosity and care of others and giving care and strength to my family while celebrating holidays?

How do I get over this? Do I get over this? Is trying to move forward a dishonor to Daddy’s memory? Is feeling or desiring joy a betrayal? Is gloom and sorrow the only emotion to feel? Why do I think that showing sadness just makes me appear weak, pathetic and a pretender, someone who simply wants attention or to participate in a loss that isn’t really his?

No one has made me feel this way. It’s all in my head. But until now it has remained in my head.

Regular readers of New South Essays will know that I haven’t published since the day of the accident. Even though I had a topic in the queue and a draft ready to post, this medium seemed so distant in my priorities that I couldn’t bring myself to put it out there. I have been in a state of survival numbness that has blocked my ability to express anything, much less an essay.

I was blessed with the opportunity to offer a personal eulogy at the graveside service. It took all of my resources to craft an appropriate word, and writing it did offer a beginning of my own healing. Delivering it to a hurting company of family and friends on that gray December day left me utterly spent as I struggled to say words that were so connected to my heart that I struggled to breathe and give voice to them. I haven’t written anything since.

Today, I am making you part of my journey of grief. If I have resolved to do anything differently this new year, it is to loosen the reins on my emotions and let some of this out. I can’t keep pretending I’m OK. I’m really not.

Lanny Carl Barron was not a perfect man, but he was “Daddy” to me. I have a father. I am blessed to have a dad whom I deeply love and who is still here for me to guide me and support me. I need that wisdom and care now more than ever. But that does not stop me from missing Daddy.

Too often I refrain from saying out loud just how much because I don’t want to upset my wife, Mama or the boys. But here, now, I am telling you that the loss of my father-in-law is affecting me in a profound way, tapping into unresolved grief from losing my grandparents and maybe every other type of loss I’ve ever experienced back to the days when my first boyhood dog had to be put to sleep.

I promise not to let New South Essays become a morose stream of my darkest thoughts. As the clouds part, I will be able to give energy to other topics, but today, I have to begin my return to feeling by sharing this.

Thank you for reading. And if this somehow speaks to you in your own journey of grief, then God bless  you. I know that I am not alone, and that does make a difference.

This has always been an interactive forum, and you are invited to leave your thoughts in a comment below. Thank you for being loyal readers, patient with my two-and-a-half month sabbatical. Perhaps you have unexpressed feelings of loss and that putting those feelings in a comment here will help. I invite you to share.

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About lanceelliottwallace

Lance Elliott Wallace lives and writes in the Atlanta suburb of Lilburn. A native of Texas and a former resident of Florida and Alabama, Lance married a Georgia girl and together they are rearing three Georgia boys. By day he communicates for Georgia Tech engineers and scientists. He spends his early morning hours praying, writing and running.
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28 Responses to A son-in-law’s grief

  1. Sharon Wallace says:

    Very well said. As your mother, I was always concerned with how Lanny’s accident and death was affecting you as well as the rest of the family. You were the son he never had.

  2. Suzanne Simmons says:

    Lance, this speaks volumes. Having just lost my mom in May, I know it has affected my husband profoundly. We all shared a house/life together for 19 years and she helped raise our 2 sons to “adulthood”. Hang in there and let it out. I have kept all of you in my prayers since Carla posted about the accident and everything on Facebook. Please know that I will say an extra prayer for you. God bless all of you.

  3. Thank you, Suzanne. If there’s anything I’ve learned through this it’s that grief is a shared experience. I’m sorry for your loss and so aware that we process our pain together. I appreciate your comment.

  4. Christa says:

    Lance – your eloquent and tender words were so welcome to me this morning. We lost my Daddy in late July and I’ve felt do many of the things you write about. It’s been five months and seems like yesterday. But “moving on” … that is a journey. When do “get back to normal?” There is no normal in a life without Daddy. Bless you, Lance, for writing again. And I pray for God’s blessing and healing for your family.

    • Christa,
      I saw many of your posts on Facebook during that time and lifted you in prayer often. I appreciate you taking the time to leave a comment and share in your journey. Your encouragement is meaningful. Take care and know that we are sharing this experience together.

  5. Jennie Samp says:

    Lance, thank you for sharing your heart with us. You managed to put words to something that can be impossible to describe. I am sending love, hugs, and prayers to all of you.

  6. Lex says:

    Tammy’s dad succumbed to Leukemia in Feb 2005 at too young an age. Then a 41-year-old father of three, I wept all throughout that spring; mostly while doing yardwork so no one would know. We’ve experienced numerous losses since then and I’ve replaced shaking my fist at God and moaning over all those good-byes with an appreciation for the times that were and the time that yet remains. Although there’s still an empty place each once filled, I’ve discovered that when they love you they never really leave you.

    • Lex,
      It’s amazing that all that happened in your family, and I knew you at that time and yet was somehow disengaged from that experience with y’all. I remember your Dad’s passing well. It speaks to how being an in-law sometimes makes for artificial boundaries that the heart doesn’t know. I appreciate your sharing this.

  7. Dustin Allen says:

    In reading NSE this morning, I was surprised by the power of my own emotions. I imagined how I might feel when this happens to Tonya and me. How profound and deep must your loss be, I thought? What about Carla and her mother? I can’t even imagine. But, I do know you have done the right thing by being there for Carla and your family. That’s who you are. Allowing yourself to feel and grieve is the right thing for them, too. Lance, my friend, I am praying for you.

    • Dusty,
      You’re a good friend despite the miles of separation. I’m glad you related to the post, and I pray that when the time comes for your family, that you will continue to be the wise and strong and supportive presence you have always been. Maybe by then, hopefully many years from now, I’ll be at a place to be a support to you. Take care and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  8. juliegrimes says:

    Lance, I always enjoy your posts and look for something to learn from them. We weren’t in school at the same time, but ever since Mac McKerral compared me to you in the journalism program I felt I had something to learn from you (Those words live in our hearts a long time, don’t they?)

    Today, your words come close to my heart. My own dad is in the hospital with pneumonia and flu and struggling with congestive heart failure. He’s doing better today and will probably come home after a few more days there but it has been a real struggle.

    I work now in a place where it is my job to encourage people through hard, hard life circumstances, some of their own creation and others now of their making. I tell them we will walk through the days together. They can do it. They can learn from their situation. We do our best with what we have, and trust God for this moment and the moments to come. Wherever they are walking, God is walking with them, and through His grace and His love, He will hold them up. I believe all those things.
    This week, I hear those same words in my head and while I still believe them, I beg, “Please not now. Don’t make me do this now.” I feel like a hypocrite when I spend my days encouraging those individuals at my desk and then pleading on my own behalf that my life not get too hard, that I not have to walk out something I’m to fearful to even write. It’s a hard, scary place to be. And it’s hard to be open with those feelings and hear my friends remind me to trust God and that my dad is in God’s hands and God will give Him and me what we need for each moment. It’s hard because I know it and I remember how many times I’ve said it to others without consideration for how to acknowledge the powerlessness that comes with those words.

    Your willingness to be strong for your family is admirable and necessary for them. Your willingness to also be real is just as necessary. I will keep on praying for you all. I am finding that my prayers have fewer words now. I no longer advise God about what I think I or someone needs, but ask Him to give you what He knows you need most. Prayers to you all.

    • Julie,
      It’s good to hear from you, and it makes me smile to know that we’ve been favorably compared by Mac! You’re helping me with this comment as you help those you engage with daily. I’ve said a prayer for your father this morning, and you’re not a hypocrite. You’re exactly what I’m finding out I happen to be: human. Thanks for taking the time to share.

  9. We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load, may the grief so heavy in your heart be lifted over time and may the Father’s presence and the caring hands/hearts of family and friends be your comfort on this difficult mile.

  10. This… Yes! All of this! Given that my FIL passed suddenly just yesterday I couldn’t understand this more right now. We are in the midst of making arrangements, helping the boys to understand what happened and while were just going thru the motions over the next few days to get things taken care of, I know the time will come that it feels real and sinks in and our own emotions will have to be dealt with. Glad to know that we won’t be alone on this journey. Will continue praying for your family.

    • Melissa,
      I’m sorry for you and Scott. If we can be of any help, please don’t hesitate to call on us. Your family was so helpful to us during our crisis, and we have not stopped thinking of you since we got word about Scott’s dad. We’re with you, and I appreciate you reaching out and leaving a comment this morning. Peace be with you.

  11. Fran Hibbert says:

    I am walking with you, Lance. My SIL died 2 weeks before Thanksgiving. She had struggled with ALS. I know that during this difficult time our faith will sustain us. Praying for you and your family.

  12. Allen Wallace says:

    So strong. So from the heart. Thank you for sharing. This is a blessing to so many. And you will be that blessing to many from this time on.

  13. Sarah says:

    You don’t get over it, but you do get through it. Together. Allow others, including – and especially – the boys, to see you grieve. It reminds them it’s okay for them to grieve too and that it is something you’re all going through. Together. Maybe not in the exact same ways, but together. You experienced a great personal loss,and it is compounded by the pain and loss your closest loved ones are experiencing as well. You’ll share that pain, but you’ll get to share the memories and celebrations of all that “Daddy” was to all of you. Together.

  14. Karyn Watts says:

    I appreciate your boldness in expressing your feelings, Lance. I lost my mother-in-law before Marty and I were even engaged. I never know what type of grief is appropriate to share being in the “in-law” category. Your post raised this grief to the surface for me and I want to share my own experience, though not as well written or thought out as yours.

    Marty at I had been dating a day shy of two months. It was a Saturday and I had driven down to Griffin from Atlanta to see him. We decided we wanted to get married. Even though it was so early in the relationship, we both knew it was right. It was so comforting to be so sure of something and exciting to start thinking about wedding plans. Two days later, the Monday before the 2010 CBF General Assembly, Marty called. I excitedly answered since we’d been texting about wedding venues and I expected him to have an idea about that. He was in tears. His mom, who’d been struggling with an aggressive cancer, was in the hospital in Atlanta and not doing well. Thus began the roller coaster of emotions. I took food to his family in the hospital that night, meeting his siblings for the first time who had all driven in the be with their mom. I left for General Assembly and somehow managed to run the store amidst her condition declining back in Atlanta. The following week, after her hard and well fought fight, we lost her. I struggled to juggle CBF responsibilities, which were at their climax for me at that time. Three weeks after her memorial service, I was managing the CBF booth at BWA in Hawaii. I couldn’t listen to music or go to church without crying. I sat in the top of the balcony at Smoke Rise with a box of Kleenex and cried and cried during the service. I couldn’t sleep, my hunger was out of whack, but I had to stay strong for Marty. I had to try and figure out how to do that having only know him two months. It was hard.

    I found it most difficult to navigate losing my “mother-in-law to be” when none of Marty’s family knew of our upcoming engagement and marriage. I walked with them through this journey and was amazed at their strength and faith throughout the whole process. They never made me feel guilty about anything and have only supported me. However, I still deal with my grief over her loss and question the appropriateness of sharing my feelings as the “in-law”. I still struggle with this missing piece in our family. Having only talked with her on three occasions before she passed away, I find myself trying to learn more about her. I watch old home videos hoping to learn what I don’t know about her personality. I wonder at family gatherings where she would fit in, what she would be doing, what is out of place by her absence. I get angry with God for taking her at such a young age. She would have been the best mother-in-law for me. She was a committed choir member, handbell ringer, preschool teacher. She loved all of the things I loved. She would have been a wonderful friend for my mom. She’s gone and I don’t understand why I didn’t get a chance to know her. I have to try and understand Marty without knowing what his mom was like, how he resembles her. But it doesn’t always hurt as much as I’m expressing now. Family gatherings are fun and full of laughter. In many ways, I imagine the family has been brought closer by experiencing this loss together.

    Thank you for providing an avenue to express my own story. I won’t hog any more of your blog space but I want to encourage you and say that you will get through it. It’s not fun and the emotions are many and are unpredictable. Next Thanksgiving and Christmas will be the most difficult – the firsts always are. But, I predict that your family will grow closer as a result of the loss. You will get through this in your own way, whatever that looks like. Continue to give yourself permission to feel and to share it. People respect your honesty and vulnerability. Many are not able to express it as eloquently as you. I love reading your essays, friend. Keep feeling, keep expressing, keep writing.

  15. Ameriucha says:

    Wow! I’m speechless. And that takes a lot. My throat is tight. The tears are running down my face. I don’t know really why I reacted this way but this blog entry certainly brought some feelings to the surface. I guess I need to do some self examination to find out why such a profound reaction. Thank you for sharing this. I continue to pray for you and Carla, that you feel God’s arms around you, holding you up and comforting you. KHarbin

  16. Goldie says:

    Your post brought on my own tears again, but those have come easily since the death of my father in October and the death of my dear cousin in November. At work and in church, I manage most of the time to push those thoughts to the back burner, as our culture expects us to move forward rapidly and not to publicly express emotion. I think previous grief which has not been completely resolved becomes compounded when we experience new episodes of intense grief. I think that’s part of why I’m struggling so much now. All the earlier episodes of loss compounded with the new losses lead to seemingly unbearable pain. My thoughts and prayers are with you, Carla, and Cynthia as work through your grief. Sending a virtual hug your way.

    Found the following scientific info re emotional tears:

    “The voluminous tears that so rapidly move us to frustration or pity are, of course, emotional tears. Secreted in moments of intense feeling – sometimes joy, but more often sorrow – these tears aren’t there to cleanse the eyes of irritating microbes or debris. Yet they do serve a purpose; the function of emotional tears can be inferred from their constituents. Emotional tears contain much more (maybe 25% more) than basal or irritant tears of a certain important ingredient: proteins.

    What do proteins do? Well, what can’t they do? We know very well they can be involved in anything and everything. The proteins found in emotional tears are hormones that build up to very high levels when the body withstands emotional stress.

    If the chemicals associated with stress did not discharge at all, they would build up to toxic levels that could weaken the body’s immune system and other biological processes. But here, as in other areas, the body has its own mechanisms of coping. We secrete stress chemicals when we sweat and when we cry. Clearly, then, it is physically very healthy to cry, regardless of whether or not it feels awkward or embarrassing socially. The reason people will frequently report feeling better after a well-placed cry is doubtless connected to the discharge of stress-related proteins; some of the proteins excreted in tears are even associated with the experience of physical pain, rendering weeping a physiologically pain-reducing process. Conversely, the state of clinical depression – in which many of the body’s self-healing processes appear to “shut down,” including, often, emotional tears – is most likely exacerbated by the tearless victim’s inability to adequately discharge her pent-up stress. Psychologists refer to freely weeping as an important stage in the healing process. But although this notion may appear to be psychological in origin, involving the confrontation of one’s own grief, it also just applies physiologically: crying can reduce levels of stress hormones.” http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/1825

    So, Lance, find a safe place to cry as much as you need so you can heal well.

  17. Paula Parris says:

    Thanks, Lance, for sharing your very moving journey through your own grief. May God use your heartfelt words to ease the burden of grief in others.

  18. Cathy Anderson says:

    The death of my father-in-law hit me in a way that even the death of my own father 10 years earlier did not. It is hard to describe and harder to explain. Thanks for your heartfelt sharing. May God bring healing to your heart and your family.

  19. David Dover says:

    Lance,

    I know how you feel so well. When Megan lost her stepfather, Mike, I had a hard time balancing my own grief with that of a new role that I started to feel- that of man-of-the-house to both Megan and my mother in law. I needed to be strong for them. However, they also knew how much of a father figure Mike was to me. They allowed my grief to mingle with the thoughts of having lost my own father. In that way, I felt even more connected to the family that I was now a party of.

  20. thebluehutch says:

    If I could stop crying I would try to write something more. Thank you for sharing your heart with us.

  21. ben mcdade says:

    Well said, Lance. My dad passed away 10 years ago last July and I still miss him everyday. I figure if I can be half as good of a parent to my kids as he was to my brothers and me, mine will be a life well lived. Let’s connect soon.

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