When to untie the social knots
May 26, 2013 11:54 AM   Subscribe

My sister has died in another country. Curious about social norms and expectations.

My sister Mary left our native Canada a little over ten years ago to marry a Dutchman, Jan. She immigrated to the Netherlands and began to integrate, but the marriage fizzled, and she divorced Jan and took up with Henk. They hadn't been together long when she was diagnosed with cancer. I met Henk when I visited them over Christmas 2011. They got married in April 2012 so had been married just over a year when she died.

Henk is a straight-up dude, who stuck by my sister throughout a hard time. Henk had been married twice before also, with two grown-up sons from his first marriage but few other living relatives. He's absolutely and unmistakably broken up over Mary's death.

There's been an outpouring of feelings on Facebook both from people Mary knew in the Netherlands and people she knew back here. He's said something to me about coming to Canada to meet Mary's friends. Mary had been making plans to bring Henk here on a visit that had to be shelved with the recurrence and worsening of her illness.

I haven't replied specifically about the visit idea, but am wondering - what obligations do I have to Henk now? I have high regard for how well he treated my sister, but I tend to think my personal connection with him has now pretty much come to an end. Pragmatically, I don't have a spare room so can't invite him to stay. Also I'm not close to any of my sister's friends, some of whom I've never even met. She and I never socialized together. Also, our parents are dead and there were no other siblings, and our cousins were not close to us and live in other cities, so there's no other family here to visit.

I have a feeling Henk will change his mind about a visit so I'm not too worried about that, but beyond that, what kind of contact is it usual to keep up with an inlaw under these circumstances? I'm vaguely curious what he'll do with their house and their pets but I find myself feeling it's no business of mine what he does with his life from now on. He'll meet someone new and I hope he finds someone nice, but that's pretty much the extent of my concern for him.

I guess this may sound cold. I don't mean it to. If we lived in the same area I'd offer to help him sort through my sister's things or some practical supportive gestures like that, but we don't. I feel for the sadness of his situation, but while I don't think we have the basis for an ongoing familial tie I'm not sure what the social norm is here.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You don't have any obligation to him at all, but given that you both loved your sister and that you sound fairly alone in the world when it comes to family-type relationships, that you might want to consider the possibility that you might get something positive out of a relationship with him - something like friendship, something like family. If you want. Otherwise treat him as compassionately as you would someone who is sharing your grief, and as you would like to be treated should the situation have been reversed.
posted by Kololo at 12:00 PM on May 26, 2013 [18 favorites]

Do what you feel like doing. For what it's worth, nobody in my family has been in contact with my dad's sister (blood) since his funeral five years ago, which is a definite decrease in contact compared to before. We all kinda want to, and are curious how/what she's doing (she's not murderous or crazy or anything, just kind of a hippie), but that's just the way it's gone. Also: you don't have to decide right now what the ongoing level of contact will be.
posted by rhizome at 12:01 PM on May 26, 2013

what obligations do I have to Henk now? I have high regard for how well he treated my sister, but I tend to think my personal connection with him has now pretty much come to an end.

You know sometimes just going through the motions of life is the thing to do. If you treat him as a brother-in-law who loved your sister, treated her well, and is suffering the grief of her loss, I don't think you'd regret it.
posted by three blind mice at 12:04 PM on May 26, 2013 [33 favorites]

Continuing friendly contact with him might be a way to honor your sister's memory.

If the death is recent, I think you should just sit with everything for a while. Grief is weird. Try and let your life normalize before you make big choices.

Down the road, if staying in touch with him is a burden to you in some way, there would be nothing wrong with letting it slip away.

I'm sorry for your loss.
posted by Brody's chum at 12:24 PM on May 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

If it matters to you, maybe think about what your sister would want. If I died, I would want for people who loved me to support other people who loved me when they needed that support. It sounds as though Henk, in his grieving, is reaching out for an emotional connection to others who might also be grieving. If you're able to provide that, you might think about whether it might help you to grieve your sister by helping her husband. Plus, it might be interesting or comforting for you to learn more about what her life in Denmark was like.

The worst case scenario if you respond to Henk's entreaties is likely that you find a brief visit or a few conversations a bit unpleasant. The best case scenario is that you see in Henk some of what your sister loved about him, and that you gain a new friend with whom you can share the deep emotional connection of having loved and lost your sister. In between those poles are a variety of things you might find pleasant or helpful in some way: satisfying your curiosities, learning more about your sister's life, getting photographs or personal effects of hers that you might like to have as keepsakes, honoring her memory by helping someone she loved, etc. So far as I can tell, there's really no downside to getting to know Henk a little. There's nothing that says you have to treat him like a sibling if you're not comfortable with that, but there's no reason not to have a couple of conversations with him and then add him to your Christmas card list, or whatever the equivalent of that is in your life.
posted by decathecting at 12:28 PM on May 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm with three blind mice. You aren't obliged to do anything, but if you offer to show him around when he's in Canada, if you keep in casual touch, I doubt you'll regret it, and there's a chance you will be really grateful. The social norm can be anything from "I still treat my brother-in-law like a sibling" to "I no longer have any contact", though. (My family falls towards the first half of this.)
posted by jeather at 12:28 PM on May 26, 2013

I would stay in touch to help him through the grieving process. If it were me, I'd visit, at least in part because I'd love to go to the Netherlands, but that's just me.
posted by theora55 at 1:20 PM on May 26, 2013

So sorry for your loss. In terms of the visit I would respond with a softer version of what you've said here - i.e. that you wish you could offer to host him but you don't have the space. But also, if true, if he were to come over you'd be happy to help him choose a hotel, pick him up from the airport, give him the contact details of any of your sister's friends that you have, and have some meals with him, have him round for dinner to show him any old photos you may have of your sister and reminisce about growing up with her. If your sister had any favourite places it would be lovely if you could show them to him - that sort of thing. But it's fine to draw boundaries around any visit as well - he probably doesn't expect to stay with you anyway.

You don't have an obligation in as much as none of us really technically have an obligation to anyone else I suppose, apart from parents to their children. But I do think showing him some compassion would be a very kind thing to do and might help you with your grieving process as well.

Beyond any potential visit, an email every few months just to say hello for the first year or so (depending on his response) dropping down to a Christmas card each year strikes me as pretty normal given the distance between you.
posted by hazyjane at 1:56 PM on May 26, 2013

You have zero obligation, but considerable opportunity here.

Henk represents a blue bird of a relationship for you, one that doesn't come often in life. And that is, in a world where you are increasingly more alone family-wise, he offers a new connection. The fact that he is separated by distance gives you space and freedom. It is a good hand he is potentially offering, and you should try it out. A loss of a sibling is always permanent in its loss. Henk offers an uncommon and slight remedy to such a loss. Best wishes.
posted by Kruger5 at 2:11 PM on May 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

It's totally up to you. Personally, I would offer to see him when he came to North America - even just a cup of coffee to reminisce over your shared loss. And I'd stay in touch at least through social media if nothing else. You don't have to feel obliged to put him up while he visits or anything.
posted by asciident at 2:15 PM on May 26, 2013

Obviously the death of your sister will change things, but it doesn't remove the connection between you: he's still your brother-in-law even if he's her widower. As for "obligation," what obligation does one ever have towards in-laws? Not that much really, beyond acknowledging the connection and basic politeness.

My brother has been dead for a decade, but I'm still in contact with my sister-in-law. I liked her while my brother was alive, why would I want to dump her just because he died? There's no particular obligation between us, but we share a connection and memories of someone we both loved. There's really no downside to keeping in touch under such circumstances.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 2:36 PM on May 26, 2013

I'm so sorry your sister has died.

When I was 17, my boyfriend of six months died in a car crash. It was an LDR: we had met on holiday and lived in different countries. When his parents phoned to tell me about his death they invited me to come stay with them so I could visit his grave, which I did a few weeks later. I met his parents and brother, they returned some small items of mine and gave me a few of his things. Afterwards, we never had any contact.

It was just a kid relationship -- we would have broken up within a year or two and I have long since healed from his death. But I still remember his family's kindness and grace, which helped me a lot at the time. So I would suggest you do something similar. Invite Henk to visit and set up a memorial evening where he can meet with you and as many of her friends as you can find. Have a special evening as well for the two of you to talk about her. If there is any special possession of hers you'd like for sentimental reasons, ask if he would bring it and give it to you. You might also ask him to tell you if there's anything logistical/practical you can help with: there almost certainly won't be, but as her nearest living relative it would be thoughtful to offer. All this will help him process her death.

It's fine to tell him you can't put him up, to have no contact afterwards, and to not to feel too broken up about this yourself (if that's the case). But helping with a ritualistic visit to Canada would be a kindness to him, it would express your regard for how he handled your sister's illness, and it would honour her memory. The first anniversary of a death is also especially hard -- it would be thoughtful to send him a card this time next year. That won't create any obligation for an ongoing relationship --- it's just a kind gesture.

If you cut off ties without doing any of this, you may feel something unresolved later and you will miss the opportunity to help Henk. You will feel better later if you invest a little effort in handling this well now.
posted by Susan PG at 2:38 PM on May 26, 2013 [13 favorites]

Three blind mice nailed it.

"I have high regard for how well he treated my sister"

You certainly don't have an obligation, but he sure sounds like family, and there's nothing to be lost by treating him accordingly.
posted by colin_l at 2:55 PM on May 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry for your loss.

I haven't replied specifically about the visit idea, but am wondering - what obligations do I have to Henk now?

None, except for those that you willingly choose.

...what kind of contact is it usual to keep up with an inlaw under these circumstances?

There's no 'usual' here; people and their families and relationships are a very broad spectrum. Do you like him as a person? Do you want to keep in contact with him? Does he want to keep in contact with you?

I feel for the sadness of his situation, but while I don't think we have the basis for an ongoing familial tie I'm not sure what the social norm is here.

The 'social norm' is irrelevant. Do what works for you.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:03 PM on May 26, 2013

Unless specifics were talked about --- if Henk said he'd come to visit the first week of x month, for instance --- I'd take it as social conversation. Sort of like when people run into each other somewhere, and one of them casually says "We'll have to get together sometime!"

Welcome him if he does end up visiting, but other than that, Christmas cards and maybe the occasional note should be fine.
posted by easily confused at 5:12 PM on May 26, 2013

I would treat him in a friendly and compassionate way. This does not extend to having him stay or having to keep in weekly contact. But if he visits, have a coffee with him, maybe show him around if you want, send a few emails or cards. Make sure he's not just left out in the cold emotionally speaking.
posted by heyjude at 5:24 PM on May 26, 2013

I can only see good coming out of showing him kindness and continuing to treat him like a brother-in-law. One of my friends lost her husband a year ago and, when that happened, his friends and family dropped her, saying their relationship had been with him, not her. For a widow in the throes of grief, it caused her further trauma, making her feel worthless and ripping the carpet from beneath her feet (as she had believed their friendship and kindness to be real). I would stay in contact with him, offer to show him around your city (mentioning the lack of space, but offering to hook him up with a hotel or something and perhaps paying if you can afford 1-2 nights, as you might for a sibling), cooking him a meal or taking him out for dinner, and maybe flipping through some photo albums. He has lost his wife, his dream for the future, and all the connections he thought he would build with her family, friends and past. In the midst of your own grief, I would hope that some small kindness toward him would leave you feeling good and make the world a brighter place, even if in some small way.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 9:13 PM on May 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

This may be of use to you in understanding your brother-in-law's expectations: my husband's mother emigrated to the US from Germany, but her family was from Emden, which is right on the border with the Netherlands, and shares a lot of its culture. Shortly after she died ten years ago, the family invited us (my husband, his sister, BIL and me) to visit. We stayed with two of the families, and while in care of the other, they arranged an apartment for us, as they did not have space for us to stay.

We went on a week-long tour of her old haunts, ate meals together, transacted bank business relating to the death with their help, and generally sealed a bond of family and friendship with them. Since then we exchange Christmas letters and visit if they/we are nearby for a conference. It is a very low-stress relationship, but one which gives us a lot of happiness. My advice would be to make this work out if you can.
posted by apparently at 7:19 AM on May 27, 2013

If you do go ahead with the visit, you mentioned that you don't know her friends... If you know one of them, you could enlist that person to take Henk for a day and introduce him to the others.
posted by CathyG at 10:53 AM on May 27, 2013

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