A Very Brady Christmas (But Way More Complicated)

A newly engaged widow wants to know how to manage her bereaved in-laws’ expectations this season. Our advice columnist weighs in.

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Four months ago, I became engaged to a man I love dearly. It’s all strangely Brady Bunch. Each of us has two kids. Mine are in elementary school and his are a few years older. He’s divorced. My husband passed away three years ago. When he was alive, and since he’s been gone, we’ve celebrated Christmas with his family, who live nearby. His mother goes all-out with the food, the decorations, and especially the gifts. My fiancé has his kids this Christmas, and we decided we’d go — the six of us (my fiancé and I and our two sets of kids) — to my fiancé’s sister’s house a couple hours north. But I’m getting MAJOR  guilt from my late husband’s parents, who have even brought up their disappointment with my older daughter. How can I smooth things over with my in-laws, and explain the situation to my girls (whom I want to maintain a close relationship with their grandparents)? 

I am so sorry for your loss and so happy for your new Brady Bunch configuration. It sounds like you have a generally good relationship with your in-laws, and you want to keep it that way — good. I’m sure you understand how hard this is for them. They lost their son, now it must seem like they’re losing their grandchildren to some extent. Add in that so much of the joy around Christmas is about kids and their excitement …  well, if yours are the only ones in the family it must seem to them like the END OF CHRISTMAS FOREVER.

But it’s not.

READ: The Grinch in Your Mailbox: Should a Holiday Letter Say How Much Pain You’re In?

I think you have to confront this head on. Reach out to your in-laws and tell them how much you love them, and how much the kids love them, and how special it is to have Christmas with them. Then ask to have an alternate Christmas celebration. It could be Christmas Eve, or Christmas Eve Eve, or a tree-trimming party, whatever. Just make it as special as you can.

You should go into this knowing that your in-laws may not be able to rise to the occasion this holiday (let’s face it, setting aside the grief aspect, people can be really … intense about Christmas). That doesn’t mean that you didn’t try hard enough, nor does it mean that they won’t ever be able to accept something different. It just may be too hard this first year. Barring any bad acts, I suggest embracing a long-term plan of kindness and understanding (and not taking it personally).

As far as explaining it to your kids, I would let them take the lead. Chances are they won’t bring it up again, but if they do, you can just tell them: I think Grandma and Grandpa are missing daddy and they are sad about not seeing you on Christmas, so we are just going to have to show them some extra love to help cover them on the day we can’t be together.  

Last but not least, to save this from being some sucky advice column where I tell a mom how to help everybody else: regardless of how in-laws or kids act, you fully deserve to have a happy holiday with your new fiancé and your blended brood. Don’t let anyone take that away from you.  All best wishes to you and happy holidays!

Meg Tansey hails from New England, where talking about your feelings is frowned upon. She has lots of life experience but is not an actual therapist. Meg has a MFA from The New School and currently lives and writes in New York City. Send Meg your questions at hello@modernloss.com (subject: Ask ML).

Please note: Questions may be edited for length or clarity. Modern Loss is not a therapeutic adviser; this category should only be used as a guide. Users should verify the veracity and appropriateness of the information posted on the site with his or her own therapeutic adviser.

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