Many people ask me, What’s it really like being re-married? My widow(er) friends want to know if I’m as happy as I was in my first marriage, if I compare my two husbands, why I’d risk being a widow again, and most importantly, if my new husband is understanding. Can you talk about James with him? Is he jealous?
My other, non-widow, friends want to know if I’m happy and if I ever think about James anymore (that is, the friends who aren’t uncomfortable acknowledging his death). If we throw my writing into the conversation: Do you think your articles about James and widowhood make him feel bad?
When I told my second husband, Sean, about my ideas for this composition, I asked for his reaction. “It sounds like you’re being honest,” he said. “Neither of us is perfect, and our marriage isn’t perfect, but … I still think it’s really great.” His simple words about our relationship are, in fact, the conclusion I’m hoping to form about re-marriage in this essay.
It’s really hard some days, unsurprisingly. Just like the first two years of widowhood, the first two years of re-marriage provide many “firsts” and reflections on the “new normal.” The first Christmas I celebrated with my second husband’s family felt disastrous, as my brain descended into a PTSD attack 10 minutes after we arrived; I heard a conversation that made me envision my new husband dying, and I lost it. Not the impression I was hoping to make. I remember thinking: I didn’t rush into this marriage. I waited five years, I went to therapy, I was ready! How could I be back in this vulnerable place? For a while, these thoughts were part of my new normal as a new wife.
As the anticipation and “firsts” dissipated with time, a mix of sadness and gratitude filled their shoes. Sadness because of the acceptance that it’s a complicated, emotional road I’m walking, and I will need to tolerate and prevent triggers as much as possible. Gratitude because of my fortune to know and be changed by James and Sean, and to live now with more purpose and presence than I could before.
What has come to be the hardest part of re-marriage for me is the pedestal on which my first husband stands; he was my best friend and, for three years after he died, I couldn’t picture ever marrying again. Due to the fact that James and I were only married for 13 months, rose-colored glasses super-glued over memories. When communication would degrade between Sean and I, I’d picture James handling the same problem a better way. When Sean became upset, I’d imagine James’ calm demeanor. You get the picture. After my brain followed this exercise a few dozen times, I felt great shame. And anger. I didn’t want to disrespect Sean or this second chance at love and life, but it felt so … automatic. How could I turn the comparisons off?
I went back to therapy, unpacking my ability to be happy and honorable to both men I loved. I was so pleased to find a therapist who, like me, was a widow in a new, long-term relationship. Known as “the grief expert” in the area I live, with a therapy dog in her office whose motto (on the wall) was to “shed frequently,” she helped me feel comfortable right away. She taught me to start by chipping away those rose-colored glasses and acknowledge that a 13-month-marriage is not an accurate picture of “marriage.” Then she focused on lowering my expectations of myself. Comparison is inevitable, but people usually do it more when something in the current marriage bothers them. She was right: I was feeling overwhelmed with my day-to-day responsibilities and disappointed that he worked so much. My new therapist taught me creative ways to approach him and have productive conversations — the kind I didn’t often need in my first marriage because it was so short.
I couldn’t believe how perfect our conversations started becoming. I felt understood, appreciated, and loved. And the thing is, he’d made me feel that way many times before — during conversations that I thought might be our end. Sean reminds me occasionally that I tried to break up with him about 50 times while we were dating. That seems like an exaggeration, but I do remember a frequent impulse to run away. Not because Sean did anything wrong, but because I felt so broken and worried all the time. What made this impulse slowly retreat was Sean’s ability to see how my grief made me a better person.
“I’m not interested in a woman who has led a ‘normal’ life. You’ve been tested to your core, and you found your core: what really matters and who you strive to be,” he’d say. “I don’t see you as broken, I see you as real, purposeful, compassionate, and … inspiring.”
These words of grace and understanding are why I chose to take the risk again. Humans are social creatures, and the feelings that a partner can create within us have the power to energize us toward our best self as well as to relax us into the journey of ups and downs. Sean has brought wondrous things to my life: a passion for travel, simplicity, and parenthood are tops. It helps that these opportunities are ones I didn’t share with James, as I stay more easily engaged in the present.
We’ve been married almost four years now. Sean still remembers hard anniversaries and asks me what I need. He has never made me feel uncomfortable when I’ve experienced a PTSD trigger or attack (which are thankfully down to one or two per year now). He has always supported my writing and connections with other widows, as he knows and values the joy and meaning I have found in using my story to help others. He is an amazing dad who is somehow never too tired to listen and/or give my shoulders a rub at the end of the day.
Neither of us is perfect, and re-marriage can be hard, but we have a great life. I’m so happy that I took the leap and opened myself up to a new family. I could’ve found satisfaction in throwing myself into work as a teacher and keeping my house a museum for James the rest of my life, but I know there would’ve been a lot of emptiness. Emptiness can be an important mental state as you process loss — I’d never recommend rushing through it — but it’s not a place to live.
I want to LIVE. To be fully present. To share my resilience and learn about others. And ever since I made that decision and moved forward, I’ve never been happier.
Michelle Jarvie is an educator and author of Then & Now: Changed Perspectives of a Young Widow. Connect with her online at http://michellejarvie.com.