DEAR ABBY: My wife died of cancer four years ago. She was my best friend, and the pain of losing her was more than I could cope with. I was in a fog for about two years, just going through the motions.Eventually the fear of spending the next 20 to 30 years alone drove me to try internet dating. I met some nice women and some very strange ones, but nothing came of it. Then a year ago, an old friend introduced me to “Elaine.” We hit it off immediately. We share the same interests and offbeat sense of humor, and I have grown fond of her. She’s intelligent, kind and easy on the eyes. Our grown kids get along very well.
Our mutual friend told me that Elaine said she loves me and would be thrilled if I proposed — I guess to encourage me to the next level. My problem is, I’m still in love with my late wife. If Elaine one day tells me she loves me, how do I respond without hurting her feelings or making her withdraw? I can see myself loving her in the future, but I am still silently mourning my wife. I don’t want to chase Elaine away, so please tell me what to do. — NEW YORK WIDOWER
DEAR WIDOWER: You and Elaine appear to have a communication problem. You are both adults. If she has fallen in love with you, you shouldn’t have to hear it from a mutual friend. You owe it to her to have a frank talk with her because she needs to know that you don’t intend to remarry until you are over the loss of your late wife. She may decide to stick it out and wait or, as you say, decide to move on. But at least she’ll know what she’s dealing with. It might also be a good idea for you to consult a grief therapist. Because if you do, it may make it easier for you to move forward with your life.
Dear Ms. Phillips (Abby):
I read with great interest your recent column titled Widower Not Ready for Romance with Friend.” As the founder of the Widowers Support Network and the author of the new breakout book titled The Widower’s Journey, I thought I would offer a few suggestions that you may wish to share with your readers.
Background: “Mister I don’t have a damn thing for you.” These were the words spoken to me by the clerk at my local Barnes & Noble bookstore after my bride of sixteen years, Michelle (52) died after battling pancreatic cancer for thirty-nine months. I knew I needed help and was devastated when I couldn’t find it. It was at this precise moment that I knew I had to write a book designed to comfort and assist the 420,000 new widowers in America each year.
Finally, a book is written for widowers, by widowers (over 40 of them). And for good measure, I recruited fifteen subject matter experts volunteered their sage advice over nine years of research and writing. The Widower’s Journey was released in April of this year and is available on Amazon.com in both paperback and in digital formats.
Your inquiry from New York Widower is tragic but unfortunately not unusual. He (and all of your readers) may find the following helpful.
An excerpt from The Widower’s Journey – Chapter 7, Dating – Barriers.
“Many men doubt that they have the capacity to love again or that their hearts have room for both the loving memories of their late wife and love for a new woman. Widower Harold Moran hit the nail on the head for me when he said, “Having a love so strong and pure and then losing it left me wondering if it was possible ever again to have what was lost.”
“Plus, the memory of being a caregiver is a traumatic one, and the thought of being a caregiver again makes us hesitant. Following his experience as a caregiver, one contributing widower viewed a new relationship as a possibility of having to care for someone again until she dies. “That’s a big issue for me,” he admitted. “I would love again. I just don’t know that I’m ready to take on the responsibility of helping someone else in the process of dying.” Such thinking is on the minds of many. Being a caregiver once is hard enough.
“And there is guilt. “I didn’t date anyone for months after my wife passed away,” said widower Steve Marquardt. “And when I finally did, I felt like I was cheating.” Some men receive a kind of permission, which can be a blessing. Said widower John Heffernan: “Mary told me it was okay to be happy with someone else. And that such a day will come.”
“As I said, one of my major reservations was guilt over seeing another woman after my years with Michelle. But the psychologist I saw reminded me how I was married before I married Michelle. Even though my first marriage ended in divorce after twelve years; I must have loved my first wife at some point.
The human heart is capable of loving more than one person, and to love again doesn’t diminish or betray the love you once had.
“My brother Dave asked me an important question: “If you knew Michelle would die after 16 years, would you still have married her?” Of course, I said yes. David’s question taught me to draw circles around periods of my life. Having done so, I know I felt free to move on to the next.
“Now we come to a delicate subject: What place should your late wife have in your life as you enter into a new relationship? A woman I know sought my advice when she discovered that her fiancé continued to write messages to his late wife on the Legacy.com website. It had been nearly ten years since his wife had died. One of the notes he posted said, “I still miss you dearly.”
“Professor Carr says that “Just because a man is reminiscing about his former life doesn’t mean he loves his new girlfriend orspouse any less. But he needs to be able to integrate those two parts of his life. Most experts agree that holding on to memories of the deceased loved one is healthy. Looking at photos and even having imaginary conversations (‘What would my late wife say about this?’) can be a source of support and solace. Memories of a late wife should enhance rather than impede a widower’s life.”
“However, she cautions that if these memories prevent a widower from fully engaging in his everyday life—things like dating, going to work, visiting with friends, and developing plans for the future—then such continuing bonds are a problem.
“A new partner needs to understand that a previous relationship is part of the fabric of someone’s life, Dr. Carr says. “Even if a widower or widow doesn’t discuss their deceased spouse with their new partner, they still may wish to re-tell a story about how they had a difficult health care decision to make, a problem with a doctor, or a bad experience when traveling to the hospital. A new partner should be a friend as well as a love interest, and friends should be able to talk honestly and openly about almost anything, without fear of judgment or the withholding of affection.”
“Clinical psychologist Edward Zimmer explains that a type of emotional integration is essential for the widower to be able to love again. The widower needs to combine his memories, feelings and continuing connection to the deceased with his emotional experiences in his new relationship, and to see his loss as a part of his whole, new life. “He is a widower, but he could now be a second husband or stepfather. His loss is a part of who he is, and that loss should not be denied or otherwise split off from him.” Zimmer says a widower’s life with his previous partner should be recognized and accepted by his new partner, even if he chooses not to discuss it with her.
“And once again we need to circle back to the importance of fully grieving. “A widower accomplishes this by allowing himself to grieve completely so it is psychologically unnecessary to split off or deny the emotional memories of his loss from his new emotional investment,” Zimmer says. “If this grief process is stymied and the new partner is seen as a replacement for the deceased, as opposed to a unique person in her own right, the new relationship will be compromised by the unprocessed feelings of grief.”