Sudden Death of a Husband

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

I lost my husband to a sudden death which involved a vehicle accident and he had suffered a pulmonary embolism at the age of 59. This happened on over a year ago just days before our 34th anniversary.

I began reading many books articles on sudden death and all the emotions, phases, you will most likely go thru. I have a strong faith in God and truly believe he has given me the strength to make it thru this past year. I have been blessed in so many ways to stay in my home, continue to work etc.  Having said all that, lately I have been longing for companionship and thinking possibly of trying to meet someone new. I enjoyed being married and we had a good marriage, with the usual ups and downs. That is when I ran into your website and AfterTalk.

At times I have so much guilt, then some strong anxiety about a new relationship, then feeling like I am getting too old and there won’t be anyone for me, and I read how there seems to be a little bit of “steer clear of widows” attitude that could complicate finding the right person.  How do you work thru all of these emotions and how do you go about meeting someone and dating again?

Rachel

Dear Rachel,

Surely the best practice for a successful second partnership is having enjoyed a satisfying earlier relationship.  Not only does it provide a training ground for future intimacy, but it also offers a model for what a good marriage might look like, so that you can be alert to when those conditions are not met in future dating situations.  This said, your mix of interest and hesitation in approaching dating as a widow is a common one, and a few principles might offer support for your new quest for companionship.  Here are 7 tips as you explore this brave new world.

  1.  Center in your values.  The best relationships begin with shared core values, such as your strong faith.  Of course, this need not imply that you limit your options to members of your specific religious denomination, but core similarities in belief and in the other values that shape choices of activities and interests are worth exploring before broaching commitment.
  1.  Consider what you have to give.  Though we often look for a partner to complete our life, it balances the equation to spend some time reminding ourselves of what we have to offer, as well as what we need.  Psychologist Abraham Maslow once distinguished between “D-love” and “B-love,” the former focused on remediating the deficits or inadequacies in our lives, and the latter, healthier variety built on “being” rather than deficiency, being who we are.  Your description of yourself and your work suggests you have much to offer to the right person, just as that person will have much to offer you.
  1.  Seek someone who can be open about your individual pasts, as well as a possible shared future.  Your previous marriage sounds long and rich, and to shroud it in silence could come to feel like erasing much of who you are–and the same would likely be true for your partner.  Seek a relationship that is not threatened by appreciative recollections of previous spouses, any more than by recollections of your respective childhoods.  Both have contributed to the people you have become.
  1.  Avoid invidious comparisons.  The previous point notwithstanding, it is important to avoid elevating a previous partner to sainthood or using him as a paragon of virtue, in comparison to whom a second partner is found wanting.  Of course, our reluctance to think ill of the dead, combined with the inevitable rough spots in negotiating any new relationship, can contribute to this common dynamic, but look for opportunities to appreciate differences as well as similarities across relationships, and you’ll be off to a good start.
  1.  Expect anxiety.  By definition, steering into the unknown stirs anxiety for most of us, and dating again after a long marriage is likely to feel unfamiliar, strange, and probably even a bit scary.  But embracing the opportunities for learning that go hand in hand with exploring new relationships can also be fun and exciting, especially if each of you recognizes that both of you likely are feeling some version of the same jitters.  The best antidote for anxiety of any kind is exposure to that which we fear, probably in a gradual way that feels natural to you.
  1.  Go slow.  One implication of the above is that there is no rush in forming a new partnership; a relationship you cultivate over the span of a year is far more likely to be fitting and solid than one that rushes toward commitment in a few months.  Especially because widowers are commonly more eager to remarry than widows, recognize that you might need to be the one who gently applies the brakes so that you can let a bit of the illusion that accompanies early romance to fade, permitting a clearer view of the partner and the relationship in the long haul.
  1.  Do some guilt busting.  Before dating, you might consider writing an AfterTalk letter to your husband, letting him know how you are feeling about opening to a new relationship, affirming your love for him, and asking his counsel.  Listening for his voice within you, wait a day or two and then write back a letter as if from him in response.  Many issues can be cleared up through this practice, which might of course extend through multiple rounds of exchange.  Talking to others who are also widows, and especially those who have re-coupled, can also help you sort through guilt, the “stigma,” if any, that you encounter in being a widow, and other obstacles that can get in the way of exploring new intimacy.  And though you might well not need it, remember that a good counselor can also assist you with feeling your way through this form of re-invention of your life if other supportive figures seem hard to come by.  Drawing on some or all of these supporters along with your own resilience, there is every reason to hope that you can write a new chapter in your relational life, one that brings its own meaning and satisfaction, even as you continue to cherish the previous one.

–Dr. Neimeyer

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