Dear Dr Neimeyer,
My husband passed away a few years ago when my children were very young. I was fortunate enough to find a wonderful man and remarry. He has embraced ‘our’ children as if they were his own. My problem is that I am very conflicted. I want my children to grow up knowing about their ‘first’ father,’ but am concerned that by doing so I am undermining their relationship with their new father. One child was old enough to have memories of her first father; the second wasn’t. All of this is tied up in my own continuing grief over the loss of my first husband, and a underlying irrational guilt about remarrying. Therapists I’ve seen haven’t offered any useful guidance. Can you help me?
Unfortunately, not all therapists are comfortable with grief, whether because they received very little training in dealing with the uniquely difficult challenges loss presents, or because they mistakenly assume that working on issues of love and loyalty in a relationship can only be done when both partners are living. In fact, as AfterTalk demonstrates, nothing can be further from the truth, as we are quite capable of accessing the voices of those we have loved and lost as we also negotiate the inevitable changes in our lives.
So how might you do so? One place to begin would be by consulting your first husband in the matter through an AfterTalk letter. How might he advise you handle this, balancing your understandable need to keep his stories alive with your children’s readiness for a second father who loves them in his own way? What special memories would he want you to share, and what new exploits of the children with you and your current husband might he appreciate hearing about, as they grow toward the young people and adults they will one day become? Fortunately, we have room in our hearts to love more than one person at a time: just as we don’t have to stop loving our parents to marry, or to withdraw affection from one child in order to have another, so too we can continue our bond with a previous partner while also opening our hearts to another. Embracing both husbands conveys this vital lesson to your children, as you teach them by example that carrying forward a legacy of love can enrich, rather than threaten, the present.