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