After the death of your spouse, it’s common that your family dynamic may go through some changes. These can be complex and difficult to maneuver as relationships with your in-laws start to shift.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Are You Still Technically Related to Your In-Laws?
- 11 Tips for Preserving Your Relationship With Your In-Laws After the Death of a Spouse
Family dysfunction after a death is considered to be typical. You may find yourself having to cope with both your grief and the changing relationships with your spouse’s family.
Questions that may come up sometimes include:
- Are you still related to your in-laws when your spouse dies?
- How do those relationships work following the death of your spouse?
The following tips may help with how you define your relationship with your in-laws moving forward.
Tip: Complicated family dynamics are just one of the many challenges you might be facing after the death of a loved one. If you need help with those challenges, as well as prioritizing bost-death tasks, check out our post-loss checklist.
Are You Still Technically Related to Your In-Laws?
Whether or not you’re still related to your in-laws once your spouse dies may be more of a personal decision rather than a legal one. Technically, your in-laws are no longer in-laws after your spouse dies. Your spouse’s family becomes your former in-laws.
Although the relationship between the parties remains the same, the legal terms to describe those connections often do change on top of the legal consequences or legal meaning of the relationship.
Legal relationships with your in-laws sometimes change following the death of your spouse. Depending on where you live, inheritance and succession rights may be affected when it comes to inheriting from your in-laws following the death of your spouse.
If you have specific legal questions needing to be addressed, you may consider contacting a family or estate lawyer in your area.
11 Tips for Preserving Your Relationship With Your In-Laws After the Death of a Spouse
Family dynamics almost always rearrange following the death of a spouse. The roles your in-laws continue to have in your life moving forward will depend on several factors. Some things that can influence those relationships are the length of the marriage, the closeness of your relationships to the family, and the cause of your spouse’s death.
In some instances, it may be nearly impossible to try and maintain a relationship with your in-laws. This is especially true if your spouse’s death can be attributed to you in any way, such as death by accident or suicide. The family may be having difficulty coping with their loss and blame you for your spouse’s death whether or not you had anything to do with it.
This loss of family ties or relationships may also become a secondary loss for you. You will not only be coping with the death of your spouse but also may be grieving the loss of your extended family. The following tips will help you to preserve your relationship with your in-laws despite some of the initial complexities that may arise after your spouse dies:
1. Practice being kind, loving, and understanding
The types of grief that are experienced following a significant loss vary from person to person. Your in-laws may be having a difficult time coping with their loss, and it may be that you represent a reminder of their loss. The grief they're experiencing may be greater than yours in ways that you may not readily comprehend.
Being sympathetic to their loss despite your pain and sorrow shows loving kindness and compassion toward your in-laws. In time, you can expect that their grief will ease. This will help make way for either a renewed relationship with your in-laws or signal an end to the family dynamic you once enjoyed.
2. Maintain a mutual respect
Maintaining respect for your in-laws and getting respect in turn following the death of your spouse will help shape your future relationship with them. Try and keep in mind through your grief that your in-laws are also grieving a significant loss in their life.
Grief and sorrow manifest in different ways and people react differently to loss. Mutual respect and understanding will help foster a healthy relationship with your in-laws as you try and cope with your loss.
3. Figure out your new roles
The death of your spouse changes your role within the family dynamic. You’re no longer married, but widowed.
Your in-laws may no longer legally be your relatives but the family of your deceased spouse, your children’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, and so forth.
4. How do you refer to one another
How you refer to your deceased spouse’s family becomes a matter of personal preference. The relationship between your in-laws and your and your spouse’s biological or adopted children does not legally change.
How you refer to one another from now on is something that you can discuss and come to terms with as time goes by. Some options to consider are:
- My late spouse’s parents/mom/dad
- My late spouse’s family
- Former in-laws
- My In-laws
- My children’s grandparents
- My children’s aunts and uncles
What about when you’re in a new relationship or get remarried? Consider finding a way of referring to one another that honors both the relationship with your late spouse’s family, and respects the person you’re dating or in a new relationship with. How you refer to your deceased spouse will also impact any current or future relationship you may be in.
5. Blended families
In cases of blended families where you and/or your deceased spouse had children from previous relationships, you all get to decide together what the relationships to the extended family members are going to be.
There’s a difference between having a legal relationship and having a personal one. You all get to decide on what roles you’ll play in each other’s lives and how you’ll continue to include each other in your lives moving forward. You may want to consider, in cases where there are minor children, if visitation will continue, how often, and under what terms.
6. Call them periodically
When you're grief-stricken, you may find it difficult to continue to foster relationships even with those who’ve been a part of your life for many years. This is no different when it comes to your in-laws. Soon following the death of your spouse, you may find that the telephone calls and visits from your in-laws start to diminish.
The support that you’ve received during the time of your loss may no longer exist, and you may start to feel the secondary loss of having lost a part of your extended family. There’s nothing wrong with calling your deceased spouse’s family from time to time to check in on them, or to catch up with each other’s lives.
7. Invite them over
The extending of invitations works both ways. The sadness you may feel over having lost your spouse and their family has most likely created a void in their lives as well.
If you were used to regularly seeing your in-laws, consider inviting them over for a visit. It doesn’t have to be a formal event or anything stressful. Consider having them over for dinner or an afternoon coffee or tea.
8. Tell them you love them
There are a few grief quotes attributed to having loved and lost someone dear to you. These feelings of grief can also include the loss of relationships with those still living. Some favorite grief quotes that may help you say I love you to someone are:
- “Grief only exists where love lived first.” – Franchesca Cox
- “To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.” – Thomas Campbell
- “Love can be distorted by loss but never lost.” – Unknown
9. Agree on holidays
If there are minor children involved, agree on a holiday schedule that allows you to both continue the relationship, and to move forward with your life.
In cases where there are minor children that are a product of the marriage, it can be healing to everyone when relationships continue. A grandchild may feel the presence of their deceased parent in their grandparent’s arms, and vice-versa.
10. Set boundaries
The opposite of showing love is when a person tries to manipulate you, your feelings, and your emotions. You may have to set boundaries with your in-laws who demonstrate manipulating and controlling behavior towards you.
Try and be mindful that this is how your in-laws may be demonstrating the pain of their loss. Sometimes this is how a person reacts to grief. However, if you’ve noticed this type of behavior before your spouse’s death, it might be a continuation of that manipulation. Consider asserting some boundaries to protect yourself from further pain and suffering.
11. Know when it’s time to move on
Sometimes it isn’t healthy to continue a relationship with your in-laws, and it might be best to say your goodbyes. Parting ways may sometimes be the best solution at times, especially if there are no children involved, or if you’ve moved on with someone new.
There will always be the memories that you shared during the time that your spouse was alive. Remember that you loved them, and they loved you - even when you may have disagreed on certain things. Know when it’s time for you to move on and say your goodbyes.
When Are In-Laws No Longer In-Laws
Although maintaining relationships with certain in-laws, such as grandparents, is essential when there are minor children, or in other special circumstances, it’s not always necessary. A wedding anniversary after the death of a spouse may no longer be cause for celebration or to invite the entire tribe over.
Moving on doesn’t mean that you have to put an end to all of your relationships, but it does allow you to pick and choose from only those relationships that continue to serve you.