Welcome to our newest feature, ‘What’s Your Question: Grief Advice & Answers’. Full disclosure, no one has actually asked us anything, making this advice 100% unsolicited gold.
A reader and friend of Litsa’s recently forwarded her a question posed to the advice columnist, ‘Ask Amy’. As a widower this reader friend found the question to be kind of awful and as such just had to share it (obviously). Upon inspection Litsa and I found the question to be equally as awful and, although the advice columnist answered gently and with tact, we thought we’d like to take a stab at it ourselves. Okay here goes:
“DEAR AMY: I have been dating a widower for almost two months. He lives out of town but we are spending weekends together. His wife passed away 2 1/2 years ago (I have been divorced for 10 years).
Pictures of him and her with family are still on the walls of his house.
He tells me he leaves the family ones up because of his kids and grandkids coming over. They were married for 38 years.
Is this man really ready to be in a relationship? I have met two of his three children, who are in their late 30s. I felt I was drilled with questions.
I just don’t know if he is really ready for his next life. Sometimes I wonder if I am just a “test run.”
Okay stop! Before we go any further, widows and widowers, please never (x infinity infinities) let anyone tell you you’re stuck or ‘not ready’ due to the photographs you have on your walls or any of your other fine home furnishings. It is not only normal but encouraged to leave photographs of your deceased loved ones out. You are not crazy, you are ok.
Alright now let’s take a giant Yeti sized step backwards and look at this situation. First and foremost let’s discuss the concept of a photograph. People take photographs so they can fondly remember the loved ones, places, and moments that make up their past. Regardless of the length of a marriage (this one just so happens to have been 38 years long), a couple is likely to have shared countless fond memories. Photographs are a device to help us remember these moments and the people we shared them with, that is the entire point. Memories don’t lose importance because the person we shared them with has died.
Moving on, I am a grown woman whose mother has died and I have 5 grown up brothers and sisters. We all still unequivocally consider our mother to be a part of the family. She exists in memory and she continues to influence our family to this day. Sadly I can no longer see her or talk to her, so instead I hang her pictures to help me remember. Your boyfriend is right on the mark, I totally expect my father to leave her pictures up for the benefit of his children and his grandchildren. We are a family and these photographs are important to our history.
Part of loving, loosing, and grieving well means coming to terms with who and what you’ve lost and finding ways to integrate their memory into your continued existence. When someone dies they don’t just disappear. I mean, consider that prospect; after you die would you want your loved ones to hide your pictures away and never utter your name? I think not. And what does it mean if this is someone’s reaction after 38 years of marriage? My guess would be they are avoiding the pain of their late-spouses memory or they are being pressured by their new insecure girlfriend to take them down.
And trust me, if you’re coming off insecure, jealous, and threated to me, there’s a good chance this is how you’re coming off to his children. I’m sure they have a few hopes for the next woman in their father’s life and you are not off to a good start by pushing him to erase the memory of their mother. The message your sending is not that he needs to move on, it’s that he needs to forget.
You’re feeling that “you just don’t know if he’s ready for his next life” is probably spot on. Why? Because there’s no such thing as a ‘next life’. True story. Your past influences your present and your future. Who we are today is a reflection of where we’ve been and what we do tomorrow is influenced by today. You will not be your boyfriends ‘next’ family because he already has one, the most you can hope for is that the next chapter involves a happy merging of his family and yours.
So here is some legit advice: just as with any relationship, seeking the approval of those closest to your mate is an important task, try to tread a little lighter while on their familial turf. And the next time you see your boyfriend and/or his children, you should speak his late wife’s name and acknowledge her. Without being disingenuous, ask them about her. What was she like? What do they miss? What was she good at? What kind of a mother was she? This will let them know that YOU know you can never take her place and reassure them that you understand she will always be a part of the family’s past, present, and future.