Managing extended family relationships after the death of a spouse is tricky, I’ve learned. It’s not always easy to know exactly where you fit in; how to maintain bonds built (or broken) over many years; or even whether to continue relationships with a late spouse’s family at all. Depending on the family dynamics before the death, it can be even more complicated. My husband’s family relationships were sometimes difficult, and I tried as much as possible to consider his relatives as my own family. I’d had strong relationships with his siblings and had always engaged with his extended family during reunions and holiday parties. I was always made to feel a member of the family. So I was surprised and upset when I discovered that I hadn’t been invited to his family member’s bridal shower or wedding just three years after he passed away.
In the first few years after Kevin died, I missed only one of his family’s events to which I had been invited — the family Christmas party just months after his death. Attending that annual gathering would simply be too much too soon. But I had otherwise participated in graduation parties, baby showers and birthdays. Those were the easy events, perhaps; the ones that didn’t come with concerns for my feelings or whether I would feel comfortable attending on my own.
However, when it came time for the first wedding, I don’t know whether the happy couple felt it would be too awkward or I would be too emotional, but I wasn’t invited. Worse yet, I was told it was because the wedding was to be a small affair for just immediate family. Unfortunately, photos on social media of the hundred-plus guests and family members in town from across the country quickly proved that excuse untrue and added to the hurt of the situation.
Why is extending an invitation to the widow of a family member so fraught? A quick review of wedding planning sites like the Knot and Bridal Guide includes discussions of whether offering a “plus one” to a recently widowed aunt would put too much pressure on the invitee to bring a date. Another question, from a mother-of-the-bride, asked if they should invite her now-deceased ex-husband’s widow. There are pages of instructions on how to address an invitation to a recent widow. If the widowed guest is simply a friend of the family, she may be cut off the list pretty easily. But if the widow is a family member, or even trickier, a family member by marriage (that has now ended), the decision seems to require further considerations. Will the widow bother to attend? Could she possibly have a good time? Will she just feel sad and overcome with memories? Where will we put her?
In my case, I believe these were all questions asked before deciding to have me sit out the family-in-law nuptials. And each came with an assumption on the other side: that every wedding I attend will only serve to make me sad, or that attending solo will cause me to feel out of place and prevent me from having fun. Making these assumptions takes away my ability to choose what I’m capable of handling at this point in my widowed life. I doubt that such analysis is made of every divorced or single person who is invited. If I feel that any occasion is too painful, I will make that decision; it is no one else’s to make. I’ve worked hard to embrace life after suffering through loss, and I’ve labored further to stay connected to my deceased spouse’s family. When someone else’s expectations prevent me from doing either, my heart is broken all over again.
I don’t speak for all widows or widowers. Some may feel great sadness at attending any family ceremonies, especially weddings. Or after years of marriage, they might feel very awkward attending social events on their own or with a friend. The caution here is that it really should be up to the invitee to know how they will feel. Only they know whether difficult feelings are strong enough to warrant missing an event.
I have attended the weddings of friends and am now entering the time when my friends’ children are getting married. They are all happy occasions where I’ve had a great time dancing, conversing and celebrating. I’ve yet to date seriously, so I’ve attended these weddings solo without any problem. When the invitation comes addressed to me and a guest, I make that decision, and am really okay filling in the number attending with “one.” A few times, I have felt as though I am there representing my missing husband as well — he was a sucker for happy occasions and would have been thrilled to attend the weddings I’ve gone to on my own.
Of course I miss him terribly at each of these events. And yes, I am sometimes reminded of my own marriage and how it was unfairly cut short. But that is all part of the joy of attending a celebration of love and lifetime commitment. Though momentarily bittersweet, it is also confirmation of life going on.
I would much rather be in attendance, sharing these joys and witnessing these occasions, than to miss them, thinking that avoiding them will make life easier. This even holds true when the person being wed is one of my late husband’s relatives, whom I wouldn’t know at all without having married into his family years ago.