Is My Widowed Mother ‘Moving On’ Too Soon?

Question from a Reader:  My dad died 11 months ago at the age of 55. My mom is 50 and looks a bit younger. I know she’s a young woman and has lots of life left in her but she’s got a boyfriend! I cannot understand how she can do this. I told her to do whatever she wanted as I didn’t want to see her lonely but to have some respect for us as we were still mourning our dad. When I talk to her on the phone all she knows how to say is US, WE, ME, and it is driving me crazy. I get so upset that it takes me an hour to get over a call from her. She doesn’t understand why we are so upset. She is now living with this guy! My thoughts are if you can physically sleep with another man, then stop crying over the first one. She will cry when we talk about Dad but yet is able to be with this other man.  Do you have any thoughts on this?

My response:  I’m so sorry to learn of the death of your father, and my heart goes out to you.  The feelings you’re having toward your mother in the aftermath of your dad’s death are understandable. When one parent dies and the remaining parent begins dating someone else, it can be very hard for the adult child to accept, no matter how soon after the death it occurs. Partly that is because you may be feeling a need to remain loyal to your father and respectful of his memory, and you may be worried that your mother will cease to remember and love this irreplaceable person you both have lost.

It may be helpful for you to keep in mind that you and your mother are grieving very different losses, and the relationships you had with the person who died are very different too. Your mother has lost her spouse, while you have lost a parent. I don’t know how long your parents were married, how close they were to each other, or anything else about their relationship, but I do know that however your mother reacts to your father’s death depends on many, many different factors, some of which you may not even be aware of.

In her insightful book Fatherless Women: How We Change After We Lose Our Dads, author Clea Simon observes that daughters of the newly widowed sometimes have trouble “balancing the real vulnerability of our newly single mothers with respect for them as adults.” She goes on to say that:

Accepting and encouraging our mothers’ independence can be awkward for us . . . . Particularly in the social arena, we are not usually accustomed to seeing our mothers as women. We knew them as our mothers, not as fellow adults who raised us, who worked in the house or out to keep a family together. We do not usually picture them as women like ourselves, as partners enjoying or leaving relationships, as people like us who have lived with the mixed consequences of their actions. Unless our mothers had been alone for a long time before the death of our fathers, we tended to see them as part of a unit, as teamed with our fathers (or stepfathers or partners) in their roles as our mothers, not as women. Now fate conspires to show us the other faces of our mothers, and makes this time full of discovery for us both. For many of us, this can be an uncomfortable transition. If our mothers start dating, for example, we have to accept them as sexual beings. If we have not faced it before, we are now confronted with the reality that the tight parental unit – the monolith of parental support, discipline, and security that protected our childhood – was comprised of two humans, one of whom is now single and lonely as we have ever been. Some of us may experience this discovery as a betrayal . . . After the death of a parent, particularly a father, this . . . may become most pronounced when a widowed mother becomes sexually active again . . . (Fatherless Women: How We Change After We Lose Our Dads, by Clea Simon, John Wiley & Sons, NY, 2001, pp. 140-142).

There simply are no hard and fast rules for deciding when the time is right (or wrong) for a widowed person to begin dating or falling in love with someone new.  For some it may be several years while for others it’s only a matter of months.  But in the end, it is up to the individual to decide if and when she is ready to love again, and it is not our place to make that determination for her.

To gain a clearer understanding of what your mother may be experiencing as a newly widowed person, it may help you to read what other widows have to say about dating and remarriage. See, for example, some of the excellent books you can find online or through your local library, such as Widow to Widow by Genevieve Davis Ginsburg, or PAST: Perfect! PRESENT: Tense! Insights From One Woman’s Journey As The Wife Of A Widower by Julie Donner Andersen.

I also encourage you to get some help with all of this by talking to a therapist or professional bereavement counselor, so that your own feelings about losing your father and your current difficulties with your mom can be expressed, worked through and resolved. You may have no control over how your mother chooses to lives her life in the wake of your father’s death, but with help you can find more effective ways to manage your own reactions and get on with your own life. Your community library or your local mental health association will have good grief counseling referral lists, or you can use the Yellow Pages of your telephone directory to call your local hospital or hospice. Ask to speak with the Bereavement Coordinator, Social Worker, or Chaplain’s Office to get a local grief referral. I hope you will think of this as a gift you can give to yourself, and I hope you will follow through with it.

© 2011 by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC

Marty Tousley

More Articles Written by Marty

As both a bereaved parent and a bereaved daughter herself, Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC has focused her practice on issues of grief, loss and transition for more than 40 years. She joined Hospice of the Valley in Phoenix, AZ as a Bereavement Counselor in 1996, and for ten years served as moderator for its innovative online grief support forums. She obtained sole ownership of the Grief Healing Discussion Groups in October, 2013, where she continues to serve as moderator. A frequent contributor to health care journals, newsletters, books and magazines, she is the author of Finding Your Way through Grief: A Guide for the First Year: Second Edition, The Final Farewell: Preparing for and Mourning the Loss of Your Pet, and Children and Pet Loss: A Guide for Helping. She has written a number of booklets for Hospice of the Valley including Explaining the Funeral /Memorial Service to Your Children and Helping Another in Grief, as well as monthly columns, e-books and online e-mail courses for Self-Healing Expressions, addressing various aspects of grief and loss. With her special interest in grief and the human-animal bond, Marty facilitated a pet loss support group for bereaved animal lovers in Phoenix for 15 years, and now serves as consultant to the Pet Loss Support Group at Hospice of the Valley and to the Ontario Pet Loss Support Group in Ontario, Canada. Her work in pet loss and bereavement has been featured in the pages of Phoenix Magazine, The Arizona Republic, The East Valley Tribune, Arizona Veterinary News, Hospice Horizons, The Forum (ADEC Newsletter), The AAB Newsletter, Dog Fancy Magazine, Cat Fancy Magazine, Woof Magazine and Pet Life Magazine. Marty’s Grief Healing website and blog offer information, comfort and support to anyone who is anticipating or mourning the loss of a loved one, whether a person or a cherished companion animal. She is certified as a Fellow in Thanatology (Death, Dying and Bereavement) by the Association for Death Education and Counseling, as a Distance Credentialed Counselor by the Center for Credentialing and Education, and as a Clinical Specialist in Adult Psychiatric/Mental Health Nursing Practice by the American Nurses Association. Marty and her husband Michael have two grown sons and four grandchildren. They spend their winters in Scottsdale, AZ and Sarasota, FL, and enjoy their summers in Traverse City, MI. Marty welcomes reader questions and comments, and can be contacted at [email protected] or through her Web sites, at GriefHealing.com, GriefHealingBlog.com, and GriefHealingDiscussionGroups.com.

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  • Shawna says:

    Hello my father passed 2 years ago. I am having a issue with my mother. She had started dating which is not the issue. The issue is she starting dating months. After my dad passed away. My father passed in the house i was raised in and i found out my mother was seeing the neighbor next door . this man use to talk to my father. And she sees nothing wrong with it. Now she is dating someone younger than her and she lost a lot of weight and is acting like my feelings don’t matter. I would love for her to meet someone that was equal to her. This new man has tried to jump on her and wont allow her to spend time with her grandchildren when she comes to see her grandchildren he constantly calls and argues with her in front of me and my children. We have had a issue with him calling my home because my mother was taking to long spending time with my children her grandchildren. And my husband and him got into it and he knows i dislike him. And so does my mother she reunited the fire of my dislike by bringing this man over my home. I was so mad i cried i asked her why would you bring this man over my home. She was very calvilar about it and said Oh yeah sorry i could of screamed. My husband told me to just let her go because all she is doing is hurting me. We just got back to talking because me and my husband were renewing our vows my sister which we have different fathers she never got alone with my father. Invited people to our wedding we didn’t know we were paying for everything when i would not allow my sisters guests she refused to come. She has always treated her better and i would have my husband and father in my corner now my dad is gone and my sister is happy and i found out she is the one who set her up with this new guy. I am tired of hurting i think my husband is right i should just distance myself from everyone.

    • Dear Shawna, I’m so sorry to learn of this situation, which clearly is causing you such distress. It seems to me, however, that since you are powerless to change any of it, you would be wise to follow your husband’s advice and distance yourself as much as possible. If you find that too difficult to do by yourself, I hope you will seek the support of a qualified counselor or therapist to help you deal with this.

  • Tessa says:

    My mother lost her husband (my Step Father) almost two months ago. They were in a fatal car accident on the way home from the casino. My mother is the type of woman who can’t be alone. She is on her was as we speak to the casino with a man who was partly responsible for my parents marriage ending. My brother & I are struggling. Not only have we lost the man who helped raise us for 13 years. Our mother is moving on with a man that was the reason my Mother cheated on my Father. We are so lost. Heartbreak don’t describe our road we’ve wound up on. How do I cope? How do we stand by as our family falls apart? Before my Mother met my Stepfather she completely shut my brother & I out. Any interested man came before us. I feel like now, myself at 26 years old, am reliving my childhood.

    • I’m so sorry, Tessa, that this is happening to you and your family. Unfortunately I think you know as well as I do that we simply cannot control another person’s behavior. The only behavior we have control over is our own. So I urge you to do whatever you can to take care of yourself in this situation, including a session or two with a qualified grief counselor ~ someone outside your circle who can empathize with you, support you as you air your thoughts and feelings, and find a way to come to terms with it.

  • Renee says:

    Hi there, my dad passed away three years ago due to cancer that he battled for 20 years on and off. My parents were married for 33 years and were literally relationship goals and were my idea of love growing up. My dad basically spent the last few months of his life in that bed. And basically died in that bed. Everything in that house is a representation of my dad he built most of our furniture. He upgraded it so much and everything. He worked so hard for our house and I grew up in that house. And I went away to Australia for a year and my mom tells me she’s seeing someone a few months ago, then the other day I find out he was staying the night at our house… in that same bed. I’m absolutely disgusted and I don’t even want to come home and feel uncomfortable in my own house. I confronted her and she says all I’m doing is making her feel like she can’t do anything right and that everyone deals with things differently. An she’s an adult and can make her own decisions. When all I said was if you’re going to spend the night with him do it at his house in respect of dad. Like his ashes out in our house how can I look past this. I’m so hurt.

    • My dear, I’m so sorry that you’re finding this so difficult to accept, and I hope you will read again the content of the article above and take its message to heart. The home you describe that your parents built, the one you’ve known since childhood, and the one you felt free enough to leave when you left for a year in Australia to live a life of your own, belongs now to your mother ~ just as the life she is living now, in the absence of your father, belongs to her as well. The hard truth is that, although your father passed away three years ago, life is for the living. Your mother has not died, and just like you, she is a grown-up woman who has every right to continue to live her life and to enjoy whatever happiness she can find. I hope you will find a way to celebrate that ~ and if you cannot bring yourself to do so, I urge you to seek the counsel of a qualified therapist or counselor who can help you sort through and come to terms with all of it.