Valentine’s Day is this week. (If you’re looking for help coping with the day, we have some posts for you right here.) With this Hallmark holiday upon us, we’re going to address a topic that we have yet to tackle in the over 500 articles we have here on WYG.
As the title of this post suggests, we’re referring to topics related to dating after the death of a spouse or partner. We’ve been slow to write about this subject in the past because, well, it’s COMPLICATED. Dating is complicated. Grief is complicated. Swirl those together and things can get pretty messy.
That said, we receive lots of questions in our email asking questions related to new relationships after experiencing loss and, over time, we hope to have articles addressing all these concerns. Today we’re going to start with a post for a special subset of non-grievers and that is the men and women out there who are dating widows and widowers. If you don’t understand why this article is necessary, I’ll tell you, the majority of emails we receive on this topic are not from widow/widowers themselves, but from the people who are dating them.
Now, as a griever, you might be thinking, “Oh boo-hoo, you’re dating a widow. Life must be so hard for you” and honestly, in the days before we started WYG we may have said the same thing. However, after receiving emails over the years, we have realized that navigating the world of dating a widow(er) is more complicated than it seems.
Our plan for this post is simple, we’re going to give you our two-cent answers for some of the most common questions we receive. As always, at the end of the article, you will find our wild and wonderful comment section, where we welcome your thoughts and experiences.
Before we jump into the FAQs, it’s a good idea for anyone who cares about a grieving person to have a baseline understanding of grief. So, you may want to start by checking out these posts about grief and then reading this post on how to support someone grieving.
Dating a widow or widower FAQs
1. I am dating a widow who still displays photos of their late partner in their home. Does this mean they’re stuck? Are they ready to date? Can I ask them to take the photos down?
Actually, we do have a post answering this question, but the conversation bears repeating because this is our most commonly asked question. Read the whole post if you want a more in-depth answer, but here is the quick and dirty – it is 100% okay to display photos of a late-partner in the home. This is especially true if the deceased person is the parent of children who live in or visit the home.
Think about it – people aren’t erased from their families or their family history simply because they have died. Would you think it odd for someone to have a photo of a deceased grandparent, sibling, or child in the home? Most likely not and 9/10 the same rule applies here. People do not cease to care about loved ones simply because they have died so, no, we would not recommend you ask them to take the photos down.
The Mitch Albom quote “Death ends a life, not a relationship” is true. Their relationship and love for that person will continue and that is normal and healthy (if this is blowing your mind, check out this post on Continuing Bonds Theory).
Photos do not indicate a person is stuck or that they aren’t ready to date. The wonderful and amazing thing about human beings is that we don’t have a finite capacity for love. Grief is about continuing to love someone who has died while also making room for new and amazing things in life. You might be one of those new and amazing things for the grieving person, but that doesn’t mean you are replacing what came before.
Ask yourself: Why am I uncomfortable with the photos? If you are feeling threatened or insecure, you may need to redefine how you understand grief and the relationship deceased loved ones play in the lives of those who mourn them. Above all else, it will help to understand how your significant other feels about the photos, so consider asking them. Ask them what the photos mean to them and, if appropriate, share how the photos make you feel.
2. I am dating a widow(er) and they are still close to their deceased partner’s family. Is this normal?
First, let’s be clear, it’s very hard to say what is and isn’t normal in grief. Let’s just say, though, it certainly isn’t abnormal! It’s common to form strong connections with a partner’s family members and it can feel like yet another loss to fall out of touch with these people.
When someone dies, it may be deeply comforting to stay connected with others who also knew and loved them. Sometimes this is simply because a person values the love and support of the family members, and sometimes because they are people you can share memories and stories with. If you skipped that Continuing Bonds post above, now might be a good time to check it out.
Ask yourself: Why are you uncomfortable with the relationship? Do you feel concerned their late partner’s family won’t accept you? Do you feel left out? Is it something else altogether? If you are uncomfortable with the relationship, it is reasonable to express your feelings (you have a right to your feelings, after all). However, in doing so, we recommend you try to keep an open mind about the role these relationships play in your significant other’s life.
3. I am dating a widow(er) who has children and I am really nervous about meeting them. What can I do to make sure it goes smoothly?
Great question, you thoughtful partner you. First and foremost, if you haven’t discussed your anxieties with your partner, you should. Make sure you are both on the same page about what the kids have been told and how you are being introduced.
What you decide may depend on the age of the children, whether you are the first person the widow(er) has dated (or at least who the kids have met), etc. Younger kids are known for testing adults to make sure their stories are consistent, so being on the same page with language and information is crucial.
Beyond that, be open and take their lead. If there is an opportunity to show your interest in learning about the parent who died, great! Show interest and ask questions, but don’t force it. Always remember that the parent/partner who died is still a member of the family. You aren’t there to replace that person, rather fill a new and different space in the family. The more you can do to convey your understanding of this to the kids, the better.
Finally, read up on the topic of regrief. At each new developmental stage, kids understand the world in new and different ways. They often start to view their ongoing grief through this new lens and this may also mean revisiting your role in the family. Keep in mind that at major life milestones, kids may feel especially upset that their deceased parent isn’t there and that you are (which is not to say they will view this is as a bad thing). All this is why it is so important to keep an open dialogue with your partner and, if appropriate, their children about their grief.
Ask yourself: Am I confident enough in the future of this relationship to meet my SO’s grieving children? Am I ready to accept the complicated feelings that might come up for the children? How can I best convey that I am warm and open, that I don’t intend to replace their parent, and that I understand the ongoing role their deceased loved one will play in their lives?
4. I want to be supportive of my significant other on difficult days (the deathiversary, their partner’s birthday, their anniversary, etc). However, they haven’t opened up to me about their feelings, so I don’t know how. If I mention these days, will I remind them of the pain?
Chances are, they haven’t forgotten the significance of these days. Though we always recommend taking the griever’s lead, this is a situation where it may be helpful to proactively offer your support. Ask them if there is anything they’d like to do to honor their loved one on the day and ask them about their anxieties, but make it clear that you are willing to give them space and time for themselves if this is what they need.
Ask yourself: Are you ready to be there for whatever they need (the only thing worse than not offering is not following through)? Will you take it personally if they say they don’t want support and/or need space?
If you are struggling as a partner to a widow(er), the biggest question to ask yourself is whether you are truly ready to accept that the person you are dating will, on some level, always love and care about the person who died? Are you able to believe – on an intellectual and emotional level – that their love for the person who died does not take away from the love they have to give to you? And, if you are gentle and open to learning more, you may find their memories and connections to the person make up another wonderful layer of them that you can get to know through stories and memories.
Thoughts, questions, concerns, words of wisdom on this topic? Leave a comment below!