It’s time again for “Dear Wendy Updates,” a feature where people I’ve given advice to in the past let us know whether they followed the advice and how they’re doing now. Today we hear from “Dating Grief” who wrote in over five years ago with a question about her new relationship. Her boyfriend of three months had just lost his father and was withdrawing from her emotionally. The relationship was so new that she didn’t know whether to attribute his behavior to grief or to his not being into her anymore. Five years later she has an update and another request for advice:
I will start with the good news: W and I are still happily together, have lived together for over three years now, and even got a puppy a year ago!
That first year following the death of his father was very, very rough and tested our relationship a lot. It required a whole lot of patience and understanding on my part, and a lot of trust on W’s part, I imagine. Eventually, W came around and the relationship flowed “normally.” We have never quite discussed the death itself, even five years later, and instead we share positive or funny attributes about his dad and reminisce about W’s memories.
My reason for writing now is sadly on the same topic; his mother is now terminally ill with advanced cancer (she was diagnosed over a year ago). We received test results this week that come with a very bad prognosis (a mandatory surgery that will help her live a few weeks to a few months). I am now trying to mentally prepare myself for what inevitably will be his second parent’s death, with both of them dying before reaching age 60. As W is an only child, I am feeling overwhelmed at what seems like a tremendously horrible situation in our near future which is unavoidable. (For the record, both my parents are living – getting old, but stable – and I have a younger sister.)
On a less depressing note, there is one silver lining: His mother ended up remarrying after W’s dad passed, and she is married to a wonderful, kind man who is pretty much the definition of a model caretaker and husband (and he has been taking care of W’s mom 90% of the time, as they live hours away). I know W, at first put off by the idea of a stepfather, ended up growing to like him and appreciates all he does for his mom. So, while a lot of this timeline is grim, it is nice to know she has a partner and a strong support network.
To lead into why I’m writing for advice and as I had shared five years ago, W is not the best at expressing his feelings, and that hasn’t changed all that much. Of course, our bond is much deeper and stronger than it was after three months of dating, but his communication style is still the same, and I doubt it will ever change. He doesn’t outright discuss “depressing” things with me too much, and he prefers to distract himself with my company and laughter as a coping mechanism instead.
I need advice on two things. First, I get the sense that W is in denial about his mom’s state and eventual passing. While I’m sure some of this is attributed to his instinctual hope that she will heal, I can’t help but want to try to lightly explain to him the gravity of the situation so that he is not caught as off-guard should she pass sooner than expected. He has said things like “when she gets better we’ll do X, Y, Z” that imply he doesn’t realize how dire things are. Do you think it is a bad idea for me to try to “explain” the situation, outright acknowledging that death is imminent, and even try to discuss funeral-type plans with him? I feel like he would be tremendously uncomfortable with the conversation and would probably get very angry and defensive. I don’t know what to do.
My other related question, which may seem to be coming out of left field in this letter, is whether you think it would be a bad idea to bring up the idea of marriage, as I feel it is something we should do while his mother is alive. We have discussed marriage and engagement many times over the last few years, and while it is something we’ve agreed we both want, he hasn’t proposed yet. (If anyone is wondering, I am 29 and he is 33.) I do know his mother is very, very important to him (they are the type who text all day), and every time I see her she checks my finger for a ring and asks me when we’re getting married. It would mean so much to me to have her at our wedding, and I know it would mean so much to her to see it. I couldn’t care less about a normal wedding in this situation; I would be perfectly happy to have a ceremony with him at her bedside and with my parents and sister there. While this seems like something HE should decide, I feel like the alternative of getting married in the future WITHOUT any of his parents present will be so difficult for him. And I think it would bother me a ton as well. Do I even try to bring this up?
Clearly, there are a lot of thoughts going through my head right now. I’d love to hear what your thoughts are. Thank you so much for your time reading this!
I’m sorry for the impending loss of your boyfriend’s mother. When it happens, it’s going to take an emotional toll on you and, of course, on your boyfriend. There’s no way around that and there’s no real way of emotionally preparing for something like that. Right now your boyfriend is protecting himself from the inevitable grief, and that’s normal and ok. And who knows — maybe hope buys time. Maybe a lot of hope and a small dose of denial keeps death at bay for a few days or a few weeks, if not outright granting a recovery. If nothing else, maybe it enriches the time left, so that it can be filled with some extra memory-making instead of solely funeral-planning. There’s really no right way to emotionally prepare for a loved one’s final weeks and months, and if you’re concerned about practical preparation, like making sure affairs are in order, that needn’t be your — or even your boyfriend’s —concern. Fortunately, his mother has a husband whose job it will be to handle those details. You and your boyfriend can certainly support him when the time comes, but there’s no need for you to bring these uncomfortable topics up for discussion if your boyfriend’s mother and her husband aren’t starting the conversations.
I understand your inclination to protect your boyfriend — to want to give him some sort of head’s up so he’s not, as you say, “caught off guard” when his mother dies. But he’s heard all the same information you have, and he’s decided to believe what he wants to believe right now because it’s how he can survive this period. Eventually, as his mother continues declining, she will probably be moved to hospice, and there will be professionals who are experienced in end-of-life care both for the patient and the patient’s loved ones, who can have the kinds of conversations that you say would be met with defensiveness and anger if you started them. Let the professional caregivers who don’t have the emotional baggage that you have with your boyfriend be the ones to help guide him to accepting the reality of the situation. And if that doesn’t happen before his mother dies? It will happen afterward. When she dies, your boyfriend is going to grieve deeply whether he accepted her impending death before it happened or not. You can’t bubblewrap a heart.
As for the marriage question, I have to wonder why, in five years, you haven’t yet tied the knot if it’s something you both want. You say you’ve discussed it many times over the last few years, but he hasn’t proposed yet, leading me to believe HE is the one putting it off. Do you know why? Do you know what he’s waiting for? There has to be some reason, and I don’t think that reason just disappears because his mom is dying. It would be one thing to rush a bedside wedding if you two were already engaged, but to use this sad situation to rush into a marriage without an engagement because you’re afraid that a future wedding without your boyfriend’s mother would be too difficult on him — maybe even so difficult that he avoids the occasion indefinitely — isn’t appropriate. It would be especially inappropriate considering your boyfriend’s denial over his mother’s impending death. If you think he’d be defensive and angry over your “explaining” the gravity of the situation to him, just imagine how angry he’d be with your suggesting that you hurry and get married while she’s still alive to witness it. I don’t see that idea being received well. And as much as it may bother you to not have his mother at your hypothetical wedding one day, I think you’d feel much more bothered being the recipient of your boyfriend’s misdirected anger over being robbed another 20 or 30 years of his mother’s presence in life. Now is not that time to push a personal agenda, regardless of how much you believe it would be for your boyfriend’s and his mother’s benefit.
The good news here, if there’s any to be had, is that you have some experience supporting your boyfriend through the loss of a parent. This won’t be entirely new terrain for you and, as you said, you’re closer now and have a deeper bond than you did years ago when his father passed away. There’s also a strong chance that supporting him through this loss will bring you closer together, and that losing his mother may change his perspective on things, like the importance of family ties (and even, in a more practical sense, the importance of being able to legally make decisions about a loved one’s care, final wishes, and settling his or her estate). Whatever his reason for not proposing yet may change through this experience. Or maybe it won’t. But pushing something so important that he didn’t agree to in his best frame of mind is not a wise decision when he’s on emotionally shaky ground; I don’t see it bringing the outcome you’re hoping for.
If you’re someone I’ve given advice to in the past, I’d love to hear from you, too. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a link to the original post, and let me know whether you followed the advice and how you’re doing now.