THE COMPLEXITY OF GRIEF
Widowers have confronted terrible sadness, but they are more than the sum of their coping mechanisms. Grief is complex, and being a patient, compassionate listener is part of building a relationship with a senior widowed man. If you, too, have been widowed, you know how comforting it is to share your feelings of loss with an empathetic someone.
Sharing has its limits, of course. If your idea of a relationship is a lively exchange of ideas but your conversations keep finding their way back to the subject of his departed partner, you may want to face facts — sooner rather than later. Some men sign up for the dating game prematurely — without having fully accepted that their wives have disappeared utterly from their lives. They imagine they are looking for someone new, but they’re really looking — surely unwittingly — for a ghostly ménage a trois.
BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO
To paraphrase Tolstoy, each widower is unhappy in his own way. Each has a different way of coping with the fact that he’s still here and she’s not. Here are some mind sets to look for.
• His marriage was a strain and he knows it
This man is a stranger to endearment, nurturing, unequivocal support. He does not recall his marriage as true partnership. If you are patient and kind and you show him how true companionship works, you will take him to new heights. He will be be surprised at first. He may be suspicious. He will be grateful. Eventually he will be more than grateful.
- His marriage was a miasma of anger and resentment but he recalls it as a joy
His mind’s marriage-memory chip has been changed out for one in which shrewish, selfish behavior is remembered as a passion for life. He’s defensive about it because somewhere deep down he’s relieved — certainly not about her death, but about not having to endure the strain of trying to stay ahead of her displeasure and unhappiness. What does this mean to you? If you can be a warm and unselfish companion, one who avoids criticism and smug comparison, you will put him at ease and make way for the start of a satisfying relationship.
- His marriage was flawless and he can’t let it go.
A friend of mine is partnered with a man whose wife died twelve years ago. Even in a room full of her friends, he can’t formulate a sentence that doesn’t begin with “my wife and I” or “my wife used to say…” This is not nostalgia, loyalty, or extended grief. It’s rudeness. Twelve years of pleading with him to lighten up on this compulsion have failed. My friend has more patience than I do. She should take him home and wash his mouth out with soap….well, okay, maybe politely explain that he needs to get on with his life. Occasionally a man like this doesn’t realize what he’s doing. More often he does, and he can’t stop. He’s comfortable and you’re entrenched. It’s okay to let compassion expire, or at least decrease as a percentage of your time together.
- His marriage was vibrant and fulfilling and he wants more of the same
Some widowers grieve deeply, but without the fear that loving again may be disloyal or ill-mannered. If you evoke for this sort of man the traits he admires and is accustomed to, you and he can find happiness together without episodes of maudlin recall. Notice I said “if you can evoke traits he admires,” not “if you are a clone of the departed.” A well-adjusted widower is not trying to replace his lost love, but to build on his earned knowledge of what good relationships can be.
Perhaps you are widowed as well, and so you are positioned to share a mutual understanding of loss. Your best relationship with a widower – the one you should strive for — is one in which there is mutual comfort with sharing memories of your spouses. When they can be spoken about freely and without self-consciousness they can be inspiration, not impediment. If you’ve been widowed, too, and your marriage also was a good one, you and your new man can continue to feel fullfilled because, thanks to the warm and supportive marriages you experienced, you are in the habit of feeling so.
A word of caution: Love after 60 is not, as it was decades ago, only about the two people involved. You most likely have children, as does he. No matter how joyous your proposed union, you will want the approval of your kids; at the very least you will not want their disapproval. A happy senior couple will stay happier if they take slow, careful, incremental steps when it’s time to tell the kids. Responsibility rests on the kids as well. Ideally, their “approval” will be matched by courtesy, and eventually with caring.