Question from a reader: I’m at the very beginning of a potential relationship with a guy who I’ve reconnected with after many years (we knew each other in high school). His spouse of 27+ years passed away four months ago, after a very long (21 years) battle with Multiple Sclerosis. He still grieves for her at times when he’s reminded of her, but he is moving on with his life. I’m nervous about getting involved with him too soon. He says he started grieving his loss of her before she even died since she’d been bed-ridden for two years, and he knew he’d be saying goodbye. They discussed openly his finding someone new to spend his life with since they both knew he wasn’t very good at staying alone for very long. As I said, we are at the very beginning. We live several states apart from each other, so for now our relationship is mostly on the phone and whenever he can come up for long weekends. I don’t want to make any major moves (me or him) at least until the first anniversary of her death, but I do want to enjoy him in the meantime. Anything wrong with this?
Marty Tousley, owner of the website www.griefhealing.com, responds: I certainly appreciate your concerns about developing a relationship with a man so recently widowed, but you know yourself and this man better than I do, so in the end, only you can determine whether there is “anything wrong with this.”
I can tell you that the relationship your man had with his wife and whatever ongoing attachment he feels toward her, both now and in the future, is unique to him, and how he reacts to this loss will be unique to him as well. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, and there is no specific time frame. Everyone grieves differently according to their age, gender, personality, culture, value system, past experience with loss, and available support.
It is also true that, while this man’s loss is fairly recent, it sounds as if he and his wife had experienced a long and probably very difficult decline in the quality of their life together, and he may be feeling a great sense of relief that this heavy burden finally has been lifted from his shoulders. At the same time, he may be feeling very guilty for feeling so relieved. This is but one example of the sort of conflicting feelings a person can have in the aftermath of the death of a loved one. Such feelings are perfectly normal (and therefore predictable) — but can be quite confusing and even disturbing, both to the person experiencing them and to the person observing them, unless such feelings are acknowledged, understood, worked through, accepted and released.
In general, men differ from women in how they experience grief and in how they express their reactions to loss. Failure to understand and accept those different ways of grieving can result in hurt feelings and conflict between partners during a very difficult time. Although there is grief work to be done, behaviors can be misinterpreted, needs may be misunderstood, and expectations may not be met.
That’s why learning about normal grief and talking with trusted others about one’s experiences in grief can be so helpful. See, for example, my articles, Grief: Understanding the Process, and How We Mourn: Understanding Our Differences.
Since your man is not the one writing to me, I’m not in a position to evaluate where he is in his grief process, but I would encourage you to do some reading about what is normal in grief, so you’ll have a better idea of how he is doing, what to expect and how you can be of help. See, for example, the articles and resources listed on my Web site’s Helping Someone Who’s Grieving page.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the work of Julie Donner Andersen, but I encourage you to visit her Web site, which contains some of her writings, as well as information about her book, Past Perfect! Present Tense: Insights from One Woman’s Journey As the Wife of a Widower . (If you just click on the title, you can read Amazon’s description and review of her book.) Julie was the girlfriend and is now the wife of a widower (a “GOW” and now a “WOW,” in her words), and she has much experience, wisdom and advice to offer people in a position such as yours. When I discovered Julie’s Web site, I was so taken with her experience, wisdom and candor that I ordered a copy of her book, and now that I’ve read it, I can say that it is by far one of the best I’ve read on the subject. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
I hope this information helps, my dear, and I wish you all the best.
Reach Marty through her websites, http://www.griefhealing.com and http://www.griefhealingdiscussiongroups.com. She blogs weekly at Grief Healing and can be found on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Pinterest.