A Crisis of the Heart

Why relationships often fail for widows

Posted Jul 05, 2016

Photo by Kristin Meekhof
Source: Photo by Kristin Meekhof

The end of a relationship often brings people into therapy. And when the end is due to a death, the emotions can be especially tender. Dating and remarriage is something addressed in my book- A Widow's Guide to Healing; however, in the past several weeks, I've received an inordinate amount of requests from widows to talk about why their relationships seem to fail. These are widows from various religious, educational, financial, and family backgrounds. Some were married to their spouses for decade; others less than ten years. The causes of their husband's death varied as well.

To be clear, this is not a scientific study, and I'm not saying if you're a widow and in a relationship that you are headed towards disaster. In addition, I'm speaking only about widows because for the past several months widows were my main audience. They came to my book events, read pieces I write here and on other platforms, and they are the ones who send me notes. I do know that the hearts of widowers break as well.

While not all marriages are healthy, many of the widows that were part of my book research state they felt loved. They tried a plethora of things to cope with their grief. They tried therapy, support groups, taking anti-depressants, moving, starting a new hobby and even getting a job and yet, their sorrow remains. Certainly, their sorrow is a part of grief and bereavement, but I believe there is more to it. When their husband dies, clearly, the love dies as well. This is what creates what I refer to as the "crisis of the heart."

This "crisis" is a separate entity of the loss, and is deeply rooted in the emotion of love. And for some widows their spouse is the only person who provided this deep love. So when their spouse's love disappears the heart itself is in crisis mode. This is why you will hear a widow say, "My heart is broken in a million pieces" or "Every day my heart breaks more."

This particular type of brokenness is a direct result of the heart being in crisis mode. The wound is so deep that the widow struggles to even understand her own pain. Death does damage, and in an attempt to assuage it, she will often enter into another relationship. Rather or not she is consciously aware of this is the reason behind her desire to be in a relationship is something for her to determine.

Sometimes within weeks of their husband's funeral or even years later a widow reports finding herself in a new relationship. She may say to you that she misses the companionship that a relationship can offer and that might be true, but chances are she is also seeking love. After all, she knows that love tends to lessen pain.

Also, she intimately knows what it is like to be be loved.  There are situations when a widow is searching to replicate this experience once again.

And as obvious as it seems it is worth stating here—death is the ultimate rejection. Unlike divorce or another type of break up, death doesn't permit reconciliation. So in order to avoid rejection, some widows will prematurely end their new relationship. Sure, many are aware of what they are doing, while others are not in touch with their deeper fear of being rejected. And a breakup that the widow doesn't initiate can be viewed as another type of loss.

One widow, in her early fifties, a mother to a college age son, told me when her son left home she felt "abandoned." She went on to explain that while her son lived with her she was able to keep her grief at bay. She was busy scheduling college tours for him, shuttling him across country for his travel soccer games and working full-time.

This widow said when her son left for college it gave "empty nest" a whole new meaning. Initially she had panic attacks, something she never experience before and then she decided to start dating. And she became involved with a married man. Months later, the widow ended the relationship.

It is worth noting that she is insightful enough to know that she chose to become involved this man because he was emotionally unavailable and knew that he would never leave his wife. "I was trying to minimize my loss" is how she summed up the relationship.

While this might not be the typical way a widow attempts to deal with her crisis of the heart, she is still attempting to reach same goal of many widows and that is to heal her heart.

This widow is not alone in choosing unavailable men post loss. Becoming vulnerable and risking rejection is part of the crisis of the heart. Love makes one open to rejection and judgment, something so anxiety provoking for some widows that they'd rather sabotage the relationship before a deep level of commitment is warranted.

Another widow said she would start dating men and when she felt a relationship became too serious she would simply stop returning phone calls or text messages. "There was no goodbye", she said. Repeatedly she ceased communication with each man because "I know I didn't want to be left again."

Other widows have unsuccessful relationships post loss because they continue to ruminate on their marriage. Each relationship leaves them comparing it to their husband. And in their mind, nothing can compete with their husband's love, so they close they end up closing the door to all dates.

Healing the heart crisis is something that needs to directly be addressed. It is difficult to tease apart this "heart crisis" from "grief" work, but I believe that it is an important distinction to make, especially for widows who struggle with relationships post loss.

Helping widows to understand that their heart crisis is a part of grief can aide a widow in their healing journey. Also, helping widows to gain insight into how their previous experiences with all love relationships (i.e., parent/child, friends) can provide widows with an opportunity to see how the crisis of the heart is attached to the emotion of love.

Many times the definition one has of love is not formed just by the marriage, but by another relationship that as a young child. After the death of the spouse, a widow longs to form a bond with someone in an attempt to heal the heart. However, forming an internal bond with oneself is important. Healing the heart as cliche as it sounds comes from within, and as long as she seeks healing in the form of another relationship, stress will persist. Assisting widows in learning to be present with the pain and not trying to dilute it with distractions (i.e., work, exercise, relationships) is also useful.

Self- esteem is another issue that widows openly discussed in my book. For many, their self- esteem took a major hit. In some circumstances, widows felt they should have been able to "save" their husband. Being able to forgive themselves is an act of love, and this too is part of healing the heart.

Becoming transparent with oneself is difficult, especially post loss but it is an integral part of healing. When one is not connected to the truth they are not living in love. And denying the truth is when fear becomes the nucleus of one's presence. Fear, anger, resentment are the emotions that keep the wounds of the heart alive. Healing the crisis of the heart requires deep reflective therapy—work that is not for the faint of heart.

Kristin Meekhof is a speaker, writer and author of the book, A Widow's Guide to Healing (with cover blurbs from her friend Deepak Chopra, MD and Maria Shriver- Sourcebooks, 2015). Kristin is also a contributor to the Live Happy book (HarperElixir, 2016). She is a  licensed master's level social worker, obtained her B.A. from Kalamazoo College, and completed the M.S.W. program at the University of Michigan. Recently, Kristin was invited to the United Nations to attend the CSW60 conference, where she introduced Lord Loomba.  She can be reached via her website and is a speaker at the upcoming FitBloggin' conference. She will be speaking about ILLUMINATE- 10 Ways to Overcome Any Setback.