Love After Death: The Widow's Romantic Predicaments
I love both my late husband and the new guy.
Posted Mar 18, 2012
"Though I know I'll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I'll often stop and think about them
In my life, I'll love you more." —The Beatles
"I can't live if living is without you." —Harry Nilsson
"A widow's refusal of a lover is seldom so explicit as to exclude hope."
All of us have romantic predicaments; widows (and widowers) seem to have even more. Should they actively search for another lover? And if they find another lover, while still loving their late spouse, how can these two lovers reside together in their hearts? For widows, is loving again worth the effort of having to adjust to another person? And is widowhood the proper time to fall in love again?
The end of love and death
For many people, romantic love forms an essential aspect of their lives; without love, life may seem worthless, devoid of meaning. Romantic love is a central expression of a good, meaningful, and flourishing life. Without love and desire, many people feel that a large part of them is dead. The lover is perceived to be "the sunshine of my life," and for many, without such sunshine, decay and death are all around.
Even in one of the darkest periods of history, the Holocaust, people fell in love, despite the risks of expressing it. People did not relinquish love, and love even enabled some of them to survive the horror and death around them.
Death is perceived to be associated with love in various ways. Thus, romantic breakups are often described as a kind of death. In the words of Dusty Springfield, after such a breakup, "Love seems dead and so unreal, all that's left is loneliness, there's nothing left to feel." Personal relationships without love are also often associated with death. We speak about "dead marriages" (there is even an internet site entitled "Married but not dead"), "cold husbands," and "frigid wives."
Since love is perceived to be the essence of life, the end of love can cause some people to wish to end life as well: to sacrifice their life or to kill others for love. The book In The Name of Love explores how men kill their wives and commit suicide when their wives intend to leave them. The French famously refer to orgasm as "la petite mort," or "the little death." Once orgasm is reached, it is in a sense the end of the loving experience preceding it and, hence, a little death. Similarly, it was claimed that "All animals are sad after sex."
The widow's new romantic situation
Is the human heart large enough to encompass more than one romantic love? There is ample evidence that this is possible, both in the diachronic sense of loving one person after another and in the synchronic sense of having two lovers at the same time. Widows' love indeed involves both aspects. Their love for two people is more complex given the continuing impact of bereavement, even years after the loss. The widow's ongoing relationship and bond to the deceased remains a central aspect of her life. She has to cope not merely with the new situation of loving two men at the same time, but also with the shift in the way she has loved her deceased husband: a shift from a relationship with a physical companion who provides active support and love to one who is no longer alive and cannot be active in her life (see here).
In the romantic ideology, profound love should last forever. The end of love is taken to indicate that it was superficial in the first place. Contrary to this view, love can perish for various reasons that arise from changes in intrinsic or extrinsic circumstances; such changes do not necessarily indicate that the initial love was superficial. It is true that profound love is less likely to perish, but it can perish nevertheless. Hence, there is no reason to assume that one's heart is not big enough to include several genuine loves in one's life.
The death of a spouse places the widow in a new situation, which has similarities to other situations in which love ends; nevertheless, widowhood has unique aspects. Whether a relationship is average, as most relationships are, or very good, or very bad, the ending of any personal relationship changes one's circumstances. In most cases of widowhood, if there was a positive attitude toward the spouse during his lifetime, this is enhanced. This is due both to the tendency to idealize the past and to our sense of propriety in not speaking ill of the dead. Although the late spouse is physically absent, the widow's love for him can remain—and even grow.
New widows (and widowers) face a range of circumstances in which their decisions are likely to be different. Here I will discuss three such central circumstances: (a) adapting to a new love while still loving the late spouse; (b) tending to avoid a new marriage or relationship, as it doesn't seem worth the effort; and (c) falling in love with another man almost immediately. (Most of the claims presented here apply to widowers as well.)
Adapting to a new lover
The case of a widow's love for a new person is different from that which pertains when a regular love affair occurs after a previous one has ended. This is especially so if, at the time of the spouse's death, both partners shared a profound love. In this case, the survivor's love does not die with the spouse's death.
The love felt for the late spouse is likely to increase in light of the prevailing idealization of the relationship and of the spouse. Although a new love might physically replace the previous one, from a psychological viewpoint, the widow will now love two people at the same time. Her love expresses the nonexclusive nature of love more than it does its replaceable nature. Thus, one widow writes: "'Second love' is different, but it's very good. I will always love and miss my late husband. It's really hard to understand sometimes how I can go from tears for my late husband into smiling and thinking of my new guy. There's an odd 'divide.' I love both of them, one here and one gone." It seems that we are blessed with a heart that is very flexible and can accommodate various people at the same time.
Consider the following sincere description (which appears on the site Widow's Voice) by Janine, a widow, about her feelings toward her new lover.
"I had only loved one person in my whole life... And he had only fallen in love once. We both had that love for over 27 years... When C came along, and we started dating, it was different. I knew things would be different, because he was not Jim. But I didn't know that love would feel different. And so as we became more serious and had deeper feelings for one another, I started to worry. A lot. I questioned myself and my feelings. Because this did not feel the same. I wasn't experiencing the feelings that I had 27 years ago. I wasn't feeling that ‘if I don't see him today, I think I'll die' emotion. I wasn't feeling that I was falling more in love each day. I wasn't feeling that my heart would burst from how much love I had for him. I didn't wake up each morning almost counting the hours until we'd be together again. So I wondered if I truly loved him. I stressed a lot over this, not wanting to give up on the relationship, but wondering if I was being fair to him if this truly wasn't love. It's hard to express how much pain I was in. He loved me a lot, but although I was not sure that it was love for me, I was not willing to stop seeing him. I thought I was being selfish. Or worse... maybe I was settling. And then [after talking to another widow] I began to realize that the way I was loving this second time was ‘normal.' And that I had to let go of my expectations. How could this love feel the same as my first love? I was younger then. We were both worry-free. We had no children. We really didn't have many bills. We had no jobs. We had time. We had freedom. We had youth. We had only each other. And we had a long future ahead of us. ...It's 27 years later. I have 6 children. I have bills... I have a dead husband... I have a scarred heart. I am in a different place. Love after love will not feel the same. But that doesn't mean that it's not love."
The important lesson to be drawn from Janine's moving description is that love can be different; looking for the same love with another partner can be devastating, as no two people are identical. It is not wrong that your new love is different from the previous one. Realizing the difference in circumstance enables a widow not to feel that she is compromising or settling. Despite the fact that her late husband raised the bar very high, she may believe that there is now a different bar. In a sense, the new lover brings the widow back to life. As Annabel, a widow, said to her friend, who ignited in her the desire to make love: "Thank you for bringing me back to life."
The widow faces the challenge of entering into a new and meaningful spousal relationship without letting the former relationship be forgotten or denied. In a recent study by Bar-Nadav and Rubin comparing the issues facing bereaved and non-bereaved women when they enter new relationships after a long-term one has ended, the bereaved experienced themselves as having changed more, but it was the non-bereaved who reported greater meaning in life and saw their life change as more positive. The growth experienced by the non-bereaved at this stage of life is likely to be less conflicted and more positive, and while the growth of the bereaved remains present and distinct, it lags behind that of their peers...
Bar-Nadav and Rubin argue that the experience of loss and its aftermath are reflected in the fact that widows feel greater hesitancy than their peers do about engaging in intimacy with new partners. These concerns about intimacy arise from the anxiety that they might lose someone again, their fear of opening up to new relationships, and their concerns about not maintaining fidelity to the deceased spouse; all of these issues enhance their tendency to avoid intimacy. The role of imagery and counterfactual thinking is central in widows. While the deceased spouse ceases to disappoint and irritate us, the living new partner continues to do so; he reminds us of the richness and the difficulties of ongoing living relationships. Although love for the deceased spouse may increase as time goes by, a certain disengagement from a constant occupation with the deceased occurs over time, facilitating attempts to adapt to the new relationship. The connection to the deceased spouse is likely to remain throughout the widow's life, but its nature will undergo many changes. The creation of a new, loving relationship involves both the capacity to let go and to hold on to the previous relationship, thus creating a new equilibrium (see here).
Like other people, a widow yearns for her lover to come back, but unlike others, she knows it is impossible. Which position is worse: the widow who knows that her lover cannot come back, or the woman who knows that her ex could come back, but might not wish to do so? The pain and sadness are greater on the widow's side, not merely because of the terminal nature of the loss, but also because of the greater romantic intensity. On the other hand, the frustration and ongoing damaging of waiting are more profound in the case of the living ex-lover. The widow is eventually likely to accept her given situation, and this will help her to live more peacefully with her current relationship.
Another marriage is not worth the effort
Finding the right partner and then learning to live with him often involves a lot of time and effort. Some people reach an age at which they doubt whether it is worth the effort. The price of adjusting to a new person may be too high—one reason being that the presence of her late husband, whether for good or bad, will remain with her most of the time.
It might be romantic to remember the late husband as a great lover who completely filled the widow's heart and thus prevents her from falling in love again, but this is not very common since profound, loving relationships that last forever are not frequent. In many cases, the personal relationship would have been satisfactory, but not one in which a great fire burned constantly in the couple's hearts. It is likely to have been good and comfortable, but not what we are presented with in romantic movies. In such situations, the considerations about whether to enter a new marital framework are typically more mundane and relate to maintaining a comfortable life. As Nancy, a widow, indicates:
"The difficulties in falling in love again have usually nothing to do with a profound love for the late husband, but to other reasons, such as mental and physical fatigue, the attitudes of children and friends, the joy of being independent and free to do whatever you like, reading at the middle of the night, not needing to cook every week, having sex only when you really want it, and not willing to get used to a new person with his wishes and oddities. The heart may include this person, but the question is whether it is worth the effort."
How soon should I fall in love again?
Even if the predicaments surrounding being with a new lover are solved and the widow can spare a place in her heart for the new lover, there is still a whole set of dilemmas concerning how and when to embark on a new love. For example, what is the proper duration of grieving, whether and when to take off the ring, when to begin dating, when to give away his clothes, which clothes to wear in various circumstances, what and how often to talk about the past, and what loving behavior toward the new lover should be shown in public.
Widows are judged more critically, and hence sensitivity, careful pace, and moderation are necessary. Thus, a widow dating a married man will be subjected to more criticism than a divorcee or a single woman—after all, she should know better what it is to lose a spouse.
One sensitive issue is how soon the widow should wait before dating. There is no acceptable norm in this regard: In some traditions, a year is the norm; in others, it may be longer or shorter.
The case of Michelle Heidstra, described in Mail Online, is particularly striking as just four weeks after her husband's death, she was embarking on a new love affair with his best friend, Adrian, a pallbearer at the funeral. Lost in her grief, she found herself drawn to the man who could comfort her. Adrian was very close and supportive to her and to her baby. At the end of a day spent with a group of her husband's friends, including Adrian, Michelle found herself in his house. "We were both in turmoil, and we needed each other. We made love," says Michelle. "We couldn't help ourselves. It seemed so right." It is, she says, exactly what Jon would have wanted. She was not even embarrassed to tell her friend about it.
Michelle understands those who criticized her, but says, "How can you make rules about people's emotions? We all love and grieve differently. I have never stopped grieving for Jon. But that doesn't rule out a new love." After a year of seeing each other, they felt that the relationship was getting too serious too quickly, and they took a break. A year later, they started dating again. This time the pace was slower, and they moved in together only six months later. They are now engaged to be married. Michelle says: "Blame me if you like, but grief hits people in different ways, and I have no regrets."
The case of Michelle is not rare; there are many similar stories of widows falling in love with their late husband's best friend within a short time after his death. It is a kind of reaction to their great loss, and the supportive friend is a natural person to be with.
Widows (and widowers) are confronted with a particular form of romantic breakup, but while this involves a terminal physical breakup, it is not a psychological one. The breakup caused by the death of the spouse is unwelcome and irreversible, and the widow might still be in love with her late spouse. There are various paths one can take in this situation, and any of them may be right in different circumstances.
Two major paths are those of either finding a new lover or giving up the search for such a lover. The first path is more desirable, but as in other circumstances, it is not always available.
Widows can profoundly fall in love, but their loving relationship might be complex, as it is typically a three-hearts relationship. Just as such a relationship is possible when all three hearts are still beating, it is possible in this case as well. In both cases, being selfless and gracious is required more than in other circumstances. Comparisons between the dead and living lovers will be inevitable—and in many cases, they will not be in favor of the living one, but one can reduce their relative weight by realizing that different circumstances cannot generate identical emotions and attitudes.
The second path leads to a more comfortable life, in which freedom is greater, and the widow accepts, at least for the time being, the lack of a profound lover. This does not exclude becoming involved in a profound, loving relationship if it happens to come along.
The romantic paths of widows are typically more complex, since widows are associated with a certain stigma, and people are more critical of them. A major issue in this regard is how soon they "should" fall in love with another person. For some widows, this takes a lot of time; for others, it is much briefer, as a new relationship offers them a meaningful way to get back to full life.
The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a widow might express: "Darling, my new lover, you may always be second in my heart, but not a far second; and in any case, I am also merely a second-hand woman."