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Mourning an Ex–Family Member

The collateral damage that comes with divorce.

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family, ex
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My former brother-in-law died recently. He’s the first of my ex-husband’s siblings to pass. My ex kept me in the loop at the end, as did my kids, since he was their uncle, but I was no longer included in any of the numerous social media tributes—the way the siblings and their spouses, nieces and nephews tagged one another and contributed photos, memories and scraps of a life lost in their family.

I’m not part of that family anymore.

One of the coolest things when I married my ex was that I inherited his four brothers and a sister and all their spouses as my family. Being adopted into a family with just one other child — a brother who was considerably older than I — I often felt like an only child, and inheriting these bonus family members was a boon at the time.

I’d even written about what it meant belonging to this large extended in-law family long before I’d found my biological parents and some new half siblings in later years.

My ex and I had enjoyed hanging out with his brothers and sister and their eventual families, getting together at his parents’ home for holidays, attending family reunions and watching our kids grow up with their cousins.

Though his parents are gone and now this brother, too, they still have family reunions each year in various parts of the country. I’m just not on the invite list anymore.

My in-law family was collateral damage — lost in the divorce.

At my son’s wedding in 2016, I saw many of them for the first time in years. I even told the brother-in-law who just passed that my greatest loss in the breakup was losing all my sisters and brothers-in-law. He smiled sadly at the time and said, “You haven’t lost us.”

I appreciated that. What with all the emotions running rampant at a wedding, seeing my in-laws was bittersweet. As is now, not being part of their family’s loss.

I hadn’t spoken to my deceased former brother-in-law since that wedding, save for the occasional Facebook message. Ditto for most of the others. Oh, there are no hard feelings or resentments, and I did have lunch with a niece a few months back when she passed through town. I even exchange the occasional social media message with a few of them.

If you’re divorced, maybe you also have collateral damage.

Recently, I spoke with an aunt, via Facetime, whom my family had lost touch with. She was my adopted mother’s brother’s wife. He met her while stationed in Germany. My mom was always very fond of her. Though her brother had passed before I was even born and her sister-in-law had remarried a few years later, we always called them aunt and uncle, even though there was no longer a marital connection.

At the end of the video call, she referred to me by a special nickname she used to call me, Tutti Frutti, because I was sweet like a German candy when I was small. I remember my mom, also gone for quite a while now, telling me how it didn’t matter that Aunt Hilda wasn’t married to her brother anymore, she was still part of the family. Widowhood, like divorce, must come with its own collateral damage.

Not long ago, my son and his wife’s sister’s husband were talking about the word “brothers-in- law” and how each of them has a sister-in-law (their wife’s sister), but they were unclear about the word for their relationship.

I’ve found it: “co-brother.” It’s a new word for a sister-in-law’s (wife’s sister) husband. Since a wife’s brother is a brother-in-law, to avoid confusion regarding the relation, a sister-in-law’s husband is a co-brother. They use the term in India.

I like it. I suppose it applies to my husband’s brother, as well. My ex-husband’s brother — the former co-brother who died recently.

Families are complicated that way. In fact, when I finally found the tears that hadn’t come the first few days after my former co-brother died, they were mingled with the lingering grief of collateral damage. The I’m-not-invited-and-I’m-not-a-member-of-that-family-anymore-and-not-included-in-messages grief that still surprises me every now and again, especially when my kids and grandchild are on one of those family-reunion trips or getting together with their aunts and uncles, the way I used to.

I’m in a wonderful relationship with a new partner now, and I even have some new in-laws to call my family.

But what once was is tough to let go sometimes. My former co-brother was good to me. We had some great times over the years, and he had a soft spot for his youngest brother (my ex) and, perhaps, for me.

That’s the thing with families: You never know just how much one of them might stick with you, whether by marriage or blood, whether in-law or co — or even ex. Like my aunt whom I’ve reconnected with, or the way my son’s found a co-brother in his wife’s sister’s husband. The way families just click. Because it’s all about people, no matter how anyone is related — or not.

My former co-brother died recently. You might not know what that’s like, but I’m mourning the collateral damage.

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