Updates: “Dating Grief” Responds

updatesIt’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 am writing an update over five years after I first wrote to you, and, for the most part, it’s a sad update. My initial letter was about my new boyfriend, W, whose father had died unexpectedly: I was having trouble reading his feelings about me since this had happened just as we had started dating. Your advice and reader advice was so thoughtful, and I came back to it VERY frequently. Still have it bookmarked!

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 [email protected] with a link to the original post, and let me know whether you followed the advice and how you’re doing now.

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  1. Northern Star says:

    If his mother is checking your finger and talking to YOU about marriage, chances are extremely good that she’s been talking to her son as well. His silence on the matter seems to be an answer. However: You’ve been great about giving your BF what he needs—be sure you don’t ignore what you need. If that’s marriage, that’s OK.

    Best of luck as you face this next challenge, LW.

    1. Anon from LA says:

      “However: You’ve been great about giving your BF what he needs—be sure you don’t ignore what you need. If that’s marriage, that’s OK.” –> This is excellent advice.

      LW, why not bring up the topic of marriage and see what your boyfriend says? If he respond positively (“Yes, I do see myself marrying you”), ask him what sort of timeline he imagines. Then you can raise the idea of perhaps getting married while his mom is still in good health. And if he doesn’t respond positively (“I’m not sure/maybe someday/I’m not ready/now’s not a good time”), then you should probably think long and hard whether you want to stay with him or whether you really want to get married.

      1. I think when you’re in the middle of a traumatic life event, it can be very difficult to make decisions about your future. Say you lost your job – it’s not the right time to plan a big move, considering you don’t know where you’ll end up working, and you may not want to make large expenditures or take on the added stress of selling and buying homes. If you’re facing a family member’s terminal illness and you weren’t already committed to marrying someone, now is not a good time to try to make that decision. I would really really not recommend bringing it up at this time.

      2. Northern Star says:

        Kate, I think that’s true—but I also think that five years is a long time to spend together, and if the boyfriend isn’t sure after this long (and then adding however long Mom has left plus time to grieve after she passes), maybe that means marriage is not on the table, ever. The LW is thinking so much about what her boyfriend wants/needs that I suspect she’s putting her own wants and needs on hold. That’s OK for awhile to get someone through a rough patch. It’s not OK for years and years.

      3. Agree, and I think there’s probably something going on there. If he wanted to propose, he would have, I just would not bring it up right now, when mom has weeks to live. Especially if it’s like, you need to be realistic about her prospects, she’s terminal, and I think we should get married before she’s gone. That’s not appropriate right now.

      4. Oh gosh no, asking big questions like that is definitely not on the table for now. Even if LW gets the answer she wants I personally would never enjoy wondering if he just did it because he wasn’t in his right state of mind and agreed to keep the one stable thing in his life.

    2. Skyblossom says:

      I think he would have proposed by now if he wanted marriage with this LW. She needs to consider how long she is willing to wait for him. She can’t spend her entire life tending to his emotional needs and not getting what she wants. If this relationship continues to sit in the same spot she needs to break up at some point.

      1. Northern Star says:

        Yes. I think the LW is pushing this right now, which I’ll agree is bad timing, because she knows if mom passes away, it will be years before her boyfriend recovers and starts to move on with his life. She doesn’t want to wait that long. After five years (watching the BF’s mom lose her husband, date, and remarry, no less!), I can’t blame her for wanting to move this relationship along. I do question whether this is the right man for her, though.

  2. Your BF reminds me of my father. He is 78 now. Over the years, my mother (83) has trying to have the end of life planning talk with him. Every time she would bring it up, he would refuse to discuss it. Then, he got sick. It’s won’t kill him, but it is debilitating. It made him realize that these are things that need to be talked about. My point is, HE had to realize it. The time will come she your boyfriend will need to talk about these things. Give him space to come to that realization on his own – do not push him. He’s doing his best to cope right now. If he initiates a conversation with you, follow his lead, but as Wendy says, let the professionals do the heavy lifting. The best way you can support him is to let him handle this his own way. And do not bring up marriage. Now is not the time.

    1. time will come *when*

      1. Sorry for the typos. Bumpy ride this morning.

  3. Rangerchic says:

    I’m sorry your going through this again LW. I can relate though, as my FIL has cancer – it keeps popping up as skin cancer, kidney cancer (he’s had a kidney removed), spots on his lungs, cancer near his brain, basically everywhere and the chemo pills he is on just….keep it at bay mostly. My husband is in denial too. I really can’t get him to talk about it much. We live 12 hours away so there’s not much we can do from here but offer emotional support (but my FIL doesn’t reach out like that). My husband does have a brother that lives only 10 minutes from their parents so that helps us feel better too. My MIL is still alive as well but I really, really worry about my husband when my FIL finally does pass. All I can do is be there for him and support him the best that I can.

  4. for_cutie says:

    My cousin got married because his girlfriend’s mother was dying. It was a small family only ceremony in the mother’s home (I attended). The event was somber and awkward, nothing like a wedding even though that is what they were going for. The mother died a few weeks later. They were divorced within two years.

    The death of a loved one is not the time to rush another big emotional family event. You cannot predict how people will feel in the moment – in the case I witnessed it seemed like overwhelming sadness because of the reason for the rushed wedding, not the joy one associates with a wedding. WWS, there are reasons you’re not engaged yet and now is not the time to get into them with your boyfriend.

  5. I think Wendy nailed it. This is going to be really hard, and you have to let it come, and get through it. I definitely wouldn’t try to get your BF to see “reality” right now. Just be there. He is feeling what he needs to feel right now.

    The sense I get from your letter is that you’re not all that confident about your relationship. You’re dreading going through this because you don’t really know what’s on the other side and if the relationship is “forever.” You think maybe you can speed this along, or reassure yourself that he’s in it for the long haul by getting married (and if that’s your motivation for trying to get him to see the gravity of his mom’s situation, not good). It sounds like you’re feeling fear and uncertainty of your own because you’re going to have to go through this very difficult time with no guarantees. That’s an awful feeling, I’m sure. I think you just have to decide that you’re there for him, it will be what it will be, and it’s going to take some time to find out what that is.

  6. To address a part of this that was unasked: do you really want to be married to someone who responds to life-altering problems with denial? Ten to one he does this in other aspects of his life, so you need to think about how you will be the one shouldering the burden of your kids’ needing treatment for things, YOU needing treatment for things, etc.

    1. dinoceros says:

      That’s sort of what I was thinking. I’m glad things are “normal” now, but it appears that things are only normal when nothing bad is happening. The amount of dread the LW has for this, presumably because she thinks he is going to push her away and shut down again, is unfortunate, and is likely going to happen again. I’d be concerned to be with someone like that in some of the examples you mentioned, if something happens to another family member or the family has to go through something else difficult.

      I don’t want to make assumptions, but a part of me wonders if the LW wants to pursue marriage now because she’s worried that things work out so well this next time around? I don’t mean to be cynical. I understand that the LW wants marriage anyway, but I personally would want to get through this next hurdle PRIOR to committing further.

  7. I just want to echo Wendy. I think it is incredibly inappropriate and out of line for you to want to “explain the gravity of the situation” to your boyfriend. He’s already lost a parent (something you have not done) and is unfortunately intimately familiar with “the gravity of the situation.” If he wants to spend the time he has with her trying to focus on positives and hope then let him. I don’t even call it denial, it’s called HOPE and thinking of positives.

    It’s also a very inappropriate time to broach the conversation of a quickie marriage. I think Kate is correct in saying that you feel unsure of the future of your relationship. If you’re into him then just be supportive. Grief and losing a parent is very difficult. All you can do is follow his lead and NOT push anything.

  8. LW, I commend you for being sensitive to your BF’s needs. But you need to look after yourself too.

    If marriage is something you want and with this guy, please go ahead and discuss it. His mother’s impending death should not be a factor in making your or his decision. Things happen in life and a 33 year person need not be babied. Don’t postpone it for his sake. Don’t rush it for his mother’s sake.

    1. RedRoverRedRover says:

      I don’t think it’s “babying” someone to not push them to plan the rest of their life with you when their parent is in the middle of a terminal illness. Jesus.

      1. dinoceros says:

        Yeah. It’s not just for his own sake, either. Say they commit to a date, and then because of the unpredictability of his mom’s health, it ends up being at a really bad time. That’s a lot of stress on both of them if they feel they have to rush the date up or postpone. I feel like it’s hard to plan any sort of big event because things can change so rapidly.

    2. Swing and a miss yet again.

  9. jilliebean says:

    To address the “he’s in denial” part – as Wendy says, he probably isn’t REALLY unaware of what’s going on. When my dad was dying my brother accused me of that very thing, because I would talk about things like “Dad’s going to watch my kids grow up”. But I knew even as I said it that it probably wasn’t true. It just made me feel good to say it…as a hope and a wish. I don’t think it made my dad’s actual death a shock in any way, or made it harder for me to deal with.

    Just wanted to give you that perspective. Hang in there…not an easy situation at all.

    1. Yes, and let’s remember that different people, especially different genders, express sadness in different ways. So maybe a woman like me would feel the need to talk things out and be realistic and plan but maybe a man needs to do it all internally and doesn’t feel like expressing his feelings that way. Or vice versa! Everyone is different in how they handle things like this.

  10. Skyblossom says:

    Getting married because his mom has a terminal illness is a poor reason for marriage. You want to get married when the two of you are committed to spending your lives together. When you are committed to the point you have no doubt the two of you would spend your lives together even if marriage didn’t exist.

    You need to wait until his mom is gone and then see how things go. He has to get through his grief. One thing to consider is that he would prefer to breakup but that would stress his mom so he’s waiting until she is gone to go through a breakup. I think that if he wanted to be married to you he would have proposed by now. After his mom is gone he will go through the grief and when he comes out of it he may want to get married but that also could be the time he moves on.

  11. Avatar photo Dear Wendy says:

    I’ll chime in again and say that when my FIL suddenly got sick in 2015, a timeline wasn’t explicitly expressed, but it seemed obvious to me that, save for a miracle, he had a few days to a couple weeks to live. It was also obvious to me that my husband did not and could not see that just yet. I resisted any urge to “explain the gravity of the situation” to him and resolved to just try to be as strong as I could and give as much support when the inevitable happened. My FIL had 12 days, the last six of which he was not lucid and there was no hope, by anyone, that he would pull through. I believe the first few days my husband could feel some hope helped him cope with the situation — and it also gave me some time, as the primary support person, to gather my my strength for the days/weeks/months ahead.

  12. LW, I think there are some great opinions here. I will add, when my husband and I have tough conversations, we go on a walk. He is much more likely to open up when there isn’t intense eye contact and he is out in the fresh air. When we were dealing with major family issues, we just walked and talked it through. As far as the marriage thing, some men don’t want to marry until they feel established and able to buy a house or something like that. Others just meander and never want to commit. I think you need to probe both your relationship and his mother in separate conversations. But with marriage, I think it is ok to ask, “What is holding you back when it comes to proposing?” Even ask, “If I proposed right now, would you say yes?” What needs to happen for you to feel ready?”

  13. You can’t manage someone else’s grief, or pre-plan it. It doesn’t work that way, and it’s kind of infantilizing, not to mention insulting, to suggest that he’s in denial. Honestly, if I were in his situation, I would be enraged at anyone who tried to “lightly explain the gravity of the situation.”

    The way he’s choosing to cope with the horrible prospect of his mother’s imminent death is…his choice. His. Not yours. If the only way he can get through it is to pretend it’s not happening, well, so be it. If he’s found a way to get through the day with his mental health intact, good on him.

    And this is SO not the time to bring up marriage. At all. So inappropriate. This isn’t about you, and how much you’d like to have her at her wedding. Your only job right now is to step back and support her son as he spends his mother’s last days with her, as HE chooses to spend them.

    1. This seems really harsh. She saw this man lose one parent and she loves him enough to try and lessen the pain and the regret that comes from loss. She wants to make lovely memories and try and help him say goodbye. She is asking for advice and her intentions are good.

      1. Sorry if it came out sounding harsh, I didn’t mean it to.

        I agree that the LW’s intentions are good. But, she’s definitely someone that likes to intensely analyze and discuss feelings, and not everyone works that way. And, if you read her previous letter, there’s a lot of stuff about wanting to be the one standing by him as he grieves, and wanting him to be vulnerable to her. Wanting to be the one that he turns to in his grief.

        I’m sensing that she really needs him to show that he needs her, if you get what I mean. She needs him to show his grief to her, almost as validation of their closeness. That was very much on display in the first letter, and I think it’s still in play here. I think it’s at least some of the reason that she’s uncomfortable with his reaction to his mother’s illness. He’s not sharing his emotions with her.

        Again, this isn’t meant as criticism. They’re just wired differently. She wants to get the big emotions out there and experience them together. He’s dealing with this privately. And at this moment, his need outweighs hers.

    2. dinoceros says:

      I think there’s also some degree of her thinking that he and his mother would want his mom to be there. Friends of mine who’ve lost parents were really sad to not have them at their wedding. I think there are definitely other factors she’s thinking about, but I don’t think it’ totally selfish.

    3. I’m in agreement with you Essie. She is trying to make his grief her problem, and it’s not. She can be there for him, but she can’t force him to do things her way.

  14. Rangerchic says:

    I, too, think it is really harsh. Some people do look like they are in denial about what is going on. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t but if they don’t talk about it, it’s hard to know. My husband internalizes the whole ordeal with his father, and that to me looks like denial. I tried talking to him once-just once- because it didn’t go over well. It’s good to have hope, I just don’t want the hope to blindside him when his father does pass. I know how much he’s going to hurt when his father passes (we all will of course) but I want to lessen that hurt for him. I know that’s probably impossible though.

    I face death head on. I like to talk about the person who is sick. It’s what helps me cope when a loved one is ill. I realize we aren’t all like that so instead of talking to my husband, I let him processes the way he needs to. It’s hard, but I don’t want to cause him anymore hurt than what is already going to come.

    1. Rangerchic says:

      That was supposed to be in response to Essie and CSP – oops!

  15. bittergaymark says:

    Okay, great. So — what? In maybe five more years he’ll be mentally sound enough to revisit marriage. Gee, I sure hope there aren’t and aunts and uncles waiting in the wings to drop dead.

  16. I get the sense that you’re used to being the one who is supportive and takes care of everyone’s problems for them, and since you did that when his father died, you’re getting ready to do that when his mother dies as well. Well…you don’t have to assume that role. If you were not with him, he would survive this. You are not his only chance at life. You can let him handle the grieving process his way, be his support, but not rush in to be “the savior” all the time. That can be really taxing on you, and it’s not your emotional responsibility. Let him grieve how he grieves, even before her death. You don’t have to make him feel a certain way or make him do things a certain way. Just have faith and trust in your relationship. It made it through one death, and it will presumably make it through this one. Don’t push so hard.

    1. Elizabeth says:

      Thank you. You are right. I think your observation is really spot on, which is shocking as it’s a part of myself I haven’t even really acknowledged. I tend not to put myself first and that’s something I need to work on.

  17. Such a beautiful response, Wendy! I am grateful I have found your website.

  18. Elizabeth says:

    OP here. Brilliant advice as always, and so many points I didn’t think of. You guys are good! Thank you all. When I wrote in I was feeling quite emotional (had gone with his mom one-on-one for chemo that morning; have never seen this before so it really got to me). I have had a bit more time to process thoughts now and agree that I need to let him deal with this however he wants, I shouldn’t try to neatly “package” an explanation for him as to what’s happening to his mom. I didn’t mean for my question to come off as infantilizing and I see how it could be interpreted that way. There was an astute observation above about how I tend to try to be a caretaker/person who takes the brunt of problems and tries to fix them. That is so true. My mom is like this so I guess I’ve got a similar outlook. I need to stop trying to control everything about this situation and let him have some hope, and just be supportive. Yes, the marriage thing may seem wildly inappropriate, but hell, it’s crossed my mind so was curious for input. Of course, I do wonder why he hasn’t proposed yet but I am very happy with our relationship and am confident it will happen.

    Thanks again everyone.

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