An old family friend died recently, someone I’d known all my life. She was there when I was born, full of stories of my little girlhood when, for a time, I was the only child among them—my parents, their closest friends. They lived two blocks from each other in Brooklyn for a time and, later, when my parents moved to a house with a backyard, they were often there, drinking martinis and grilling food.
The husband died years ago—more than 20—and the wife went on, traveling to places he’d never wanted to go, being adventurous, sailing to the Galapagos, riding elephants and camels well into her 80s. They had only one child, a daughter. I found out the family friend was pregnant when she passed on a martini and had milk instead.
They—the husband and wife, the daughter—lived in the same apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan they’d moved to around the time my parents bought their first house in Brooklyn: more than 50 years. The apartment was filled with art, a collection of antique salt boxes, photographs of her two grandchildren, her daughter, her son-in-law.
Her daughter is the primary mourner, of course. She and her mother were a close mother/daughter pair always. She’s had a lot to handle in the weeks since her mother died, and though she is an only child, she’s had lots of support—from her family, her husband’s family, a large network of friends.
The morning it happened she called from her mother’s apartment, waiting for the people from the funeral home to arrive. I went over to be with her—it’s not a time or a situation to be alone.
I’ve been with her at other times too: when arrangements needed to be made. When the ashes needed to be picked up. She’s cried sometimes, not all the time. It comes in waves, she said, and I admire the way she’s been able to ride them, to let the sadness wash over her, then wash away, her certainty that the tears would leave in their own time, the same as the certainty that they would come.
Once, after we’d done something together, she texted to thank me.
“You’re welcome,” I said. “But you don’t need to thank me. We’re family.”
We are. And we’re not.
I’ve known her all her life, as her parents knew me, and I loved them deeply. There have been times in my life they—her dad in particular—made a profound difference to me.
How do you grieve when your “status” as a mourner is secondary? When you’re family, but not? When you aren’t a primary mourner?
I’ve been in this place before. I had just separated from my husband of nine years when he called to tell me his father had died. I went to the funeral, alone. In separating, I’d forfeited rights—rights to the family, rights to primacy, rights to affection. I knew that. I’d given up my place.
Still, I went to the funeral because, despite knowing I’d be the object of gossip, of whispers about why I was there and how I looked, going felt like the right thing to do. I’d known his father for almost 10 years. I had love and affection for him.
I sat in the back of the church, not in front, with the family. I greeted my husband, who awkwardly thanked me for coming, but I didn’t speak to his sisters nor they to me. I decided not to go out to the cemetery for the burial but, if I had, I’d have gone in a car with my husband’s sister’s in-laws—other secondary mourners.
It was hard to be there, as I’d known it would be. People think you’ve forfeited feelings when a marriage ends, but that’s not true. The feelings I had for my husband and his family didn’t evaporate just because the marriage didn’t last. But I was definitely in a kind of limbo—neither family, nor not.
When my mother died, my father received calls and notes from people he hadn’t heard from in a long time—old school friends, people from old neighborhoods. Helene.
Helene was the woman before my mother—a previous, brief marriage I’d never heard a word about until my father told me, when I was an adult. There was no trace of her in my father’s life. No children, no talk, no pictures. When, years earlier, I’d helped my mother clear out my grandmother’s apartment I came across photo after photo of my father with the person he’d clearly been standing next to carefully snipped out.
And yet now—here she was. Not even a secondary mourner, not even a tertiary one. Someone who’d once loved my father. Who wanted to reach out, to offer condolence, even though she had no status in my father’s life. No place. Still, she was sorry for his loss.
Belonging is a human need. It’s why we form ourselves into families and clans. Why we join societies and clubs, churches and temples. If we leave them—the church or the temple, the society or club, even the family, it doesn’t mean we have forgotten what it was like when we belonged.
So what does that make us—the former in-laws and spouses? The family friends? We are mourners once removed, like second cousins no one’s ever met. Technically family, practically not.
My relationship with my parents’ best friends, and with their daughter was like that as well. It was family-like, but it wasn’t family.
Being a secondary mourner means your grief is private because if it’s too public, too loud or visible, you divert attention from the real family. You might not sit in the last row at the funeral, but you don’t sit in the front row either. Your role is to offer support, not receive it. You are necessary to the family, but you are not family. You’re something in the middle.
Image Credit: Buckley AFB.