Can Anyone Talk To Their In-Laws About ‘What If’?

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I can talk to my in-laws about the number of cavities my ten-year old will soon have if he doesn’t stop eating so many Pop Tarts.  I can talk to my in-laws about the record lack of snow this year. We can talk about movies last seen in 1974. We can never, never, NEVER talk about what we would do if something would happen to my husband on deployment.  And nothing will ever change that.

So I was struck by Terri Barnes column at Stars and Stripes this week. One of her readers, whose spouse died on active duty, pointed out that conversations that cover “what happens if” really need to be conducted with the parents of the service member prior to deployment.

“In the surviving spouse communities I affiliate with, a common theme is fights with the surviving parents. At best, it’s verbal bashing and social media wars. At its worst, it involves the courts and legal action, as each side takes the other to court over burial arrangements, disposition of benefits, visitation of kids — all the worst hallmarks of an ugly divorce.”

That isn’t a scene anyone wants—parents or spouses. Reasonable people can recognize that if the worst happens, grief will be a powerful factor in how everyone behaves. So it makes perfect sense we should all sit down with mutual our in-laws.  We should conduct frank discussions about “what if” way before the deployment ever happens. I totally agree.

I totally agree that you should sit down with your family. My in-laws are never going to get beyond the weather and everybody’s health.  I wish they would.  I wish we would all behave like a TV movie, hold hands around the dining table and review what happens if a service member dies.  But we won’t. We are a family of polite silences.  We are a family of the averted gaze.  If something happens to my husband expect longer silences and stonier gazes and a coldness that would make the polar icecap refreeze.

In the planning part of my brain, I know that the “what if” conversation needs to happen with the in-laws.  But in the stillness beneath, I know that if we were the kind of family who could sit around a table and have such a difficult conversation before deployment, we would also be the kind of family who could get through the grief process without having it turn into an ugly divorce.  In the meantime will rely on luck and hope–and pray that will be enough.

Navy wife Jacey Eckhart is Editor of SpouseBuzz and author of I Married a Spartan??  The Care and Feeding of Your Military Marriage available on iTunes and on





About the Author

Jacey Eckhart
Jacey Eckhart is the former Director of Spouse and Family Programs for Since 1996, Eckhart’s take on military families has been featured in her syndicated column, her book The Homefront Club, and her award winning CDs These Boots and I Married a Spartan?? Most recently she has been featured as a military family subject matter expert on NBC Dateline, CBS morning news, CNN, NPR and the New York Times. Eckhart is an Air Force brat, a Navy wife and an Army mom. Find her at
  • Michele

    I wouldn’t have that conversation with my in-laws even if we weren’t military. i’ve been married to my husband longer than he lived at home with his parents. IF something were to happen to him – militarily or not – his funeral and arrangements would happen the way he and I had pre-decided. Not his parents. We’ve made arrangements. This is not their call to make.

  • hollyda31

    Not gonna happen, at least not for a LONG while. My father-in-law in particular is NOT too thrilled with my husband’s decision to enlist, and what terrifies me is that IF the worst happens, I feel like my in-laws will blame me because I’m the one who presented the idea of enlistment in the first place. I’m afraid that I’ll get blamed for sending their baby boy off to war to die. I can’t even go there. Maybe in time when they see that he really IS well-suited for the military and that this is where he should’ve been all along, they’ll start to see it differently. But for now? We don’t go there.

    • Zina

      I am in the exact same boat as you! My in-laws blame me for not stopping my husband enlisting in the military. They say I should have stopped it and that I shouldn’t be supporting him.. I will always support my husband whether they like it or not.

  • Heidi

    I am very lucky? blessed? to have fantastic in-laws who understand that the decision for the “what if” will be completely left to me, unless I ask for their assistance. This has never been spoken out loud, but insinuated by their actions on other matters. I also have no doubt they would always be a part of my life, and not just because of the kids, but because they truly are a part of my family.

  • Guest

    My husband is deploying soon, and he has written down all of his preferences as to his final arrangements if the worst happens, burial vs. cremation, where to be buried, scripture reading, what music, everything. It was a difficult thing to do for both of us, but if it is ever needed I know it will make it much easier for me and the in-laws during the most difficult time of our lives, and there can’t be any arguments because it will all be his wishes. We used a fill-in-the-blank list in the book United By Love, Separated By Duty.

    • jacey_eckhart

      Thank you for the resource recommendation–I always think these things are easier to do with some kind of prop. It makes it a fraction less emotional and gives this talk more of a practical, professional, to-do flavor.

  • I ended up writing a “what if” letter should something happen to me. Another for my DH along with a copy of our trust. No talk neded!