By Julie Donner Andersen
Remarriage itself is a daunting undertaking, but when a woman marries a man who lost a first spouse to death, she may be plagued by issues and emotions which stem from her mental competition with the late wife, as well as her insecurity about her place in her new husband’s heart.
When my previously widowed husband and I married, not only did we unite our two souls, but also two sets of memories and two pasts, which amounted to two sets of “baggage” as well as two unique resumes of life experiences. Wives of widowers (WOWs) bring all these items to the altar, put them in the marital blender, and hope the mixture comes out smooth. But without knowing the delicate intricacies of grief and what to expect from one who struggles with it, becoming a WOW can be a roller coaster of emotional ups and downs. But there is hope.
Based on my own personal life experiences, I would like to offer some steps you can take to reduce your anxiety if you are about to marry a widower:
1) Embrace the past – Don’t hide it or run from it.
Ignoring your husband’s grief will not stop it. Nothing will. He will most likely forever grieve his loss to some degree, although time does diminish the pain. Living in denial of grief’s existence will only prolong your spouse’s grief recovery. It is better to develop a relationship in which both of you can air your issues about his grief, his past, and his late wife. Your feelings are just as important as his, and although it is kind and noble of you to be accommodating about his grief, it is just as wise to keep your issues on the table in full view of the marriage. Don’t stash them deep inside where they, if neglected, will fester into resentment.
2) Accept that your marriage will be one of three hearts, not two.
It’s no easy task to share your husband’s love with another woman, but in a marriage to a widower, that is precisely what you must learn to do. Rest assured that it IS possible for grief and love to co-exist within the same heart, and that your husband’s love for his late wife will never diminish what he feels for you!
The key to accepting the late wife into your marriage is to give credit where credit is due. She, like all wives do, helped to forge your husband’s character. Acknowledge that their love and marriage helped to make him the man you love today.
3) Don’t let pettiness over material possessions get you off on the wrong foot.
If you battle with insecurities about whether or not your husband does or will ever love you as much as he loved his late wife, then the placement of pictures or personal possessions from their marriage in your house may seem like an important point of issue for you.
Healing this problem requires respect, honesty, and compromise. Between the two of you, decide which possessions you are both comfortable with keeping, and which of them you are willing to donate or discard. Remember that you each have special mementos of the past which hold great sentimental value. Be sensitive about the other person’s feelings when deciding which items you can keep in your home.
4) Be ever vigilant about remaining sympathetic and empathetic when dealing with the bereaved family members.
While the late wife’s family may or may not accept you into the new extended family fold, remember that they have experienced a great loss and are dealing with the backlash of grief. They may fear that their deceased loved one’s memory will fade into obscurity just because your husband decided to remarry, and then subconsciously blame you. When you remain constantly focused on their bereavement, it will be much easier for you to forgive any negativity on their part. Allow them to keep their memories. Be patient as they grow to love you for who you are. They will, in time, come to respect your place in your husband’s life.
5) Don’t dwell on the past or let it feed your insecurities.
Was the late wife prettier/sexier/funnier than you? Was she a better cook? Lover? Friend? Parent? Our comparisons to the late wife, though normal, can feed our insecurities and inhibit the growth of a marriage.
Your husband did not marry you because you were an exact replica of his late wife. He is keenly aware of the unique qualities that made him fall in love with you, whether they are vastly different from – or eerily similar to – his first wife’s. Accept that you and the late wife are two different people with wonderful characteristics, both of whom are worthy of your husband’s love. Remember that the negative differences you imagine in your own failed comparison to the late wife may be just the reasons why your husband found you to be so appealing!
6) Be selfless and gracious enough to accommodate grief-related episodes as they occur.
You cannot love a widower enough to make him forget his late wife. Yes, time is a healer, and along every grief journey, unbearable sadness becomes tolerable at some point. However, do not be fooled into thinking that your husband’s late wife’s death anniversary or their wedding anniversary, her birthday, or holidays will be grief-free.
Your husband may be unwilling to share his grief feelings with you on these special occasions simply because he might be afraid that speaking of them will hurt your feelings. These are the times to graciously offer your permission as well as your understanding. Lovingly remind him that you are aware of the significance of these dates when they occur, and that you are available for listening should he wish to share his feelings.
7) Firmly set boundaries, but with gentleness and cooperation.
Marriage with a widower isn’t all about his grief and tiptoeing gently around it. YOUR feelings matter, too, and they deserve validation, no matter how petty and unrealistic society may find them. A full time “grief counselor” should never be a previously widowed husband’s expectation of his new wife, and no self-respecting WOW should tolerate it. The line in the sand should be drawn with the present and future in mind, even when the past needs to be handled with care. It helps to firmly but gently communicate your issues to your husband, and allow him the opportunity to be as sensitive to your “second wife needs” as you are to his “grief needs”.
8) Read, research, and learn all you can about the stages of grief and what to expect from each.
By the time you marry, most of your husband’s grief journey will be complete. However, as with all bereaved persons, there will always remain a spark of grief that must be dealt with on a regular basis. It helps to learn all you can about grief and its effects in order to understand how they will eventually fit into your marriage.
In Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s book, “On Death And Dying,” the author outlines the stages of grief and what a bereaved person can expect from each. While the book falls short of fully describing the remarriages of widows and widowers, it is a wonderful guide to grief.
9) Don’t be afraid to seek outside help should you find your WOW feelings to be overwhelmingly frustrating.
My husband and I shared a very special communication about his past, his late wife, and his feelings about both, which provided comfort and encouragement to us in our marriage. However, at times I still tended to tilt at the windmills of my mind: the intimidating but self-imposed ghostly presence of his late wife. How I longed for a “sister WOW” from whom I could receive support and encouragement!
At some point, it may become acutely necessary for a WOW who constantly deals with the negative pressures of her role to seek the support of a counselor, clergyman, or fellow WOW. Sometimes, just getting validation for our distinctively unique WOW emotions is the first step towards healing them.
10) Live for the present and welcome the future by making each day uniquely yours.
It is important to make new memories with your widower that are special only to the two of you, those that are autonomous from his marriage to his late wife.
Plan vacations to exotic places that neither of you has ever visited. Combine your holiday traditions, thereby making new ones that will become unique to your marriage. Redecorate your entire house or even one room at a time together, or buy a new home together and make it your own.
You cannot change the past, but you can accommodate, accept, and embrace its memory without sacrificing the quality of your present and future. <<
Julie Donner Andersen is the author of “PAST: Perfect! PRESENT: Tense! Insights From One Woman’s Journey As The Wife Of A Widower” available at www.juliedonnerandersen.com