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?
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.
2 thoughts on “A Bereavement Counselor’s dilemma: the widow is ready: nobody else is.”
Ten months seems like a very short period of bereavement before someone embarks on a new relationship. Chances are that the woman’s new love interest is worried about his potential relationship being shot to hell by her family, especially in view of the recency of her widowhood.
In recent times, I have read numerous accounts of widowed people’s children selfishly acting in their own best interests and not being too concerned about the welfare and rights of their remaining parent. Horror stories abound, especially concerning daughters.
If the widow has read widely, she should know how to deal with her family and the multitude of methods they could use in their attempts to sabotage her relationship. Her new love interest probably needs to let her take charge of her own family issues and, if they not being managed well, make himself scarce.
I am a widower, at the age of 83, who lost my wife to covid December of 2020. We were married for 53 years and I have many fond memories of our life together. We have four adult children. My wife and I agreed that, if one of us died before the other, the surviving spouse should move on with his/her life and find a new partner at some point. So I feel no restraint in seeking another partner for my remaining years, though I am not in a hurry to do so. Here is my dilemma: Our daughter, in her mid-40s, and her 17-year-old son have long lived with us and now continue to live with me. My daughter, who is a teacher at a private school, does not earn enough to adequately support herself and her son. My three sons are happily married and much more financially independent than my daughter. They have indicated they understand that their sister will have a greater need for inheritance from me than they will. I have some savings in an IRA and a wonderful waterfront home. I struggle to think of how to resolve the issue of fairness to my four children, an issue that could be even more challenging if I were to enter into a new relationship and remarry. Any thoughts to help me with this quandary will be appreciated. Thanks!