It turns out marriage isn’t just between a man and a woman.

“You marry the person, not their family,” was the advice that fell from my mouth over a cuppa counselling session I once gave a girlfriend who was struggling with prickly in-laws.

At the time I believed what I was saying. “At the end of the day it’s your partner you go home to, not his mum, dad, sister or brother. Everything just needs to be right between the two of you—you fell in love with him, not his family!”

In our Western world it is so easy to spend your life happily living under the tyranny of distance. We marry and move a street, a suburb or even a city away and live our lives checking in at Christmases and christenings and somewhere in between.

Up until this week I stood by my philosophy. I fell in love with him despite his family, not because of them, so while Isupported him I didn’t feel the need to meet any standards other than his.

That was until his beautiful 93-year-old Nan passed away on Monday. As I bawled my eyes out for three days straight I discovered that my theory was full of big gaping holes.

I should have realised when I joked that if we separated I would get his mum in the divorce, or when I squirrelled away in my memory shoebox the sweet birthday cards his Nan would write to me in her old fashioned script, but threw out those my own brother sent me.

Over time his family crept in and I’d become an unlikely polygamist. I had married more than my husband on our wedding day; I’d said “I do” to about a hundred relatives. My marriage is happily and heartwarmingly crowded.

When my inbox pinged with the message to get to the hospital urgently because Nan was experiencing unexpected heart failure, I didn’t think twice. Like the rest of her enormous family I would have moved heaven and earth to get to her side and hold her hand. And hold her hand we did.

It is a measure of this woman’s worth that her hospital room overflowed into the halls with those desperate to tell her how much they loved that she loved them. In the last few hours of Nan’s life her hands began to swell and talk turned to removing her wedding band for relief. Widowed over 50 years ago, she never took her ring off because it meant so much to her.

At that moment I understood that that wedding band meant so much more than the traditional love, marriage and a man she missed—that simple gold band meant a family created through birth and choice.

So we took it in turns to massage her soft wrinkled hands to bring the swelling down and keep that token of love firmly on her finger. It was a privilege to have helped and a memory I will treasure.

Rest in peace Marie Murtagh, survived by nine children and their partners, 28 grandchildren and their partners, and 11 great-grandchildren.