A Bereavement Counselor’s Dilemma: the widow is ready: nobody else is. Dear Dr. Neimeyer:

I am a bereavement counselor at a hospice.  I have a client who has done amazing work after the death of her husband.  She is in her mid 60’s and very healthy.  She and her husband had counseling before his death and she continued after his death.  She has written, and written, and read everything she can get her hands on.   She has recently met a man in whom she is romantically interested who is concerned she has not grieved enough.  It has been ten months since her husband died.  She feels she is ready to explore a new relationship.  Her family is not.

Can you help me with some helpful advice for her?

Diana

Dear Diana,

As you know, one sign of resilience following the loss of a spouse is genuine readiness to open one’s heart to another partnership, though this is by no means an inevitable outcome of positive adaptation to loss.  Across much of human history and most cultures, committing to a new partner in marriage would be considered the normative and approved course, though cultures vary in whether this expectation applies more to men or women.  Thus, there is nothing unusual about your client’s interest in exploring a new relationship, even as she approaches the first anniversary of her husband’s death, and certainly the therapeutic work she has done with you and on her own seems to have contributed to her readiness for this step.

But of course, such decisions are not simply individual matters, as they implicate other stakeholders in the family and social system.  Adult children in particular can feel an invisible loyalty to a deceased parent, and be reluctant to imagine the surviving parent in the arms of another.  Most, but not all, eventually come to terms with this natural desire on the part of their surviving parent, though acceptance and perhaps even celebration of this development commonly takes time.  More crucially, it takes two to say “yes” to a relationship, so the concern of the potential partner that your client “has not grieved enough” has to be taken seriously.  Is this a general cultural norm that he subscribes to, or if he himself is widowed, is his concern grounded in his own intimate experience?  Or does it reflect subtle signals that he seems to be receiving from your client, perhaps in the form of a careful avoidance of triggers for sadness or grief, or an overly needy reaching out for security in a new bond?  Faced with these questions, and the need for the prospective partners to be “on the same page” in their readiness to step toward one another, I would likely invite a session with both of them to consider what each is ready for now, and what they might be open to some months down the road.  Of course, just this sort of conversation might be relevant for many couples who are negotiating possible intimacy, whether or not either of them had recently lost a partner.  But in the case of widowhood, I would also likely introduce the invisible third party to the conversation—namely, the deceased husband—to explore how comfortable each is in speaking about him and what would be considered a normal and healthy loving place your client might still hold for him in her life.  At the point that both members of the potential couple are comfortable with that as well as with one another, I trust that the relationship might move forward in a way that could be embraced by both, as well as the larger circle of their families.

Dr. Neimeyer

2 comments on “A Bereavement Counselor’s Dilemma: the widow is ready: nobody else is. Dear Dr. Neimeyer:

  1. I do not feel a time period can be placed on moving forward. As someone who was in a 5 year relationship (20 year marriage) but the last 5 years was consumed with his cancer. Dealing with cancer as I did became a very empty lonely life. As time went on he became very hateful, didn’t want me to touch him, yet that had been part of our life prior to the cancer. I feel only the person who feels they are ready to move forward can make that decision. I would question why the gentlemen feels the way he does. Maybe it is he is not ready for a relationship. There is no time period on grieving. If she feels she is ready perhaps she should move on from this person as seems to be want to make her decision.

  2. Great reply, Bob. A group therapy session with the three of them would likely bring up topics that haven’t really been explored. Personally I have much tighter / closer? boundaries. I would be pretty angry if anyone told me I hadn’t grieved enough. My first response would be “it’s none of your business!” Who is capable of measuring another’s grief? Or “enough for what? For you?” Many older couples get jealous of the dead partner. They want to be the first partner and want not to be compared to the actual first one.

    This is also time to remind people that grief has no goal. Therapists sometimes try to evaluate how their client is “progressing.” That is not our business. We are here to help find out what the client wants and needs and to help them see and evaluate how they are doing. Someone in one of GriefNet’s groups wrote yesterday that grief is like fog. That made sense to me. But no two people agree what grief is nor how to help the bereaved. There is no way to reliably compare one person’s grief to another’s. When we are bereaved, we are hanging in the breeze, whether we’re grief professionals or not. We do have the slight advantage of knowing that this, too, shall pass. But when it is I who is hurting, that knowledge gets a big “So what?” from me. I hurt NOW.

    So her partner’s thoughts about how she is doing with her grief is a big red flag to me. Feels invasive, controlling, and a reason to take a big step back and think about this. I may not know what grief is, but I do sense trouble ahead. So your suggestions are good ways to explore that.

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