A reader writes: I am currently dating a widower who feels the need to publish a picture of his ex-wife in the local newspaper twice a year, on her birthday and date of death. He has been doing this for five years. We have been dating for four-and-a half-years. My husband died suddenly of a heart attack just a month after my companion’s wife died following a two-year battle with colon cancer. At this point, I’m not sure how I am tolerating these very public displays of grief. I have been told that such public displays of mourning are indications of unresolved grief/guilt. My sense is that this is true, which causes me concern not only for my health and that of the man I am dating but for our relationship as well.
Would you be willing to comment on the phenomenon of repeated mournful pictures being published ‘in memoriam’ in the newspaper? I can find nothing on the topic of this behavior. Intuition tells me there is considerable stuckness and guilt involved.
My response: You’ve asked me “to comment on the phenomenon of repeated mournful pictures being published ‘in memoriam’ in the newspaper,” and while I am certainly willing to do that, please bear in mind that I am doing so without knowing anything about you or the widower you’re dating, other than what you’ve told me in your message.
On the face of it, I can tell you that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the need to honor the memory of a deceased loved one on a birthday or a death day. Years ago, those of us in the field of mental health worried about folks who engaged in such behavior, interpreting it as their having difficulty “moving on” or “letting go” in their grief, but in recent years. we have come to understand better the need for the mourner to maintain some sort of continuing bond with a loved one who has died.
As Carolyn Ambler Walter writes in her book, The Loss of a Life Partner (Columbia University Press, 2003): “In the postmodern approach to grief, there is skepticism about the concept of closure, since there are serious questions about whether people ever ‘recover’ from a loss. This gives the clinician permission to allow the bereaved partner to work on his or her grief, regardless of the amount of time that has elapsed since the death of the partner. This approach to grief encourages ‘circularity’ rather than ‘closure’ and frees the bereaved partner to experience feelings and thoughts about the deceased partner at any point in his or her life. A circular approach can normalize, for bereaved partners, the ongoing or intermittent painful feelings about their loss, which friends, relatives, and society tend to believe should be worked through to a point of closure. Perhaps this need for closure is related to our society’s tendency to deny the process of death and to discourage people from discussing death and all its ramifications (p. 251).”
Additionally, although you are a widow yourself and have experienced the death of a spouse, I urge you to be cautious when evaluating your partner’s grief responses as normal or abnormal. It’s important to keep in mind that, although certain patterns and reactions are universal and fairly predictable, everyone’s grief is as unique to that individual as his or her fingerprints.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve, and there is no specific time frame. Furthermore, everyone grieves differently according to their age, gender, personality, culture, value system, past experience with loss, and available support. Some folks experience grief in primarily emotional ways, having all sorts of feelings such as anger, guilt, sadness or loneliness.
Others react in physical ways, feeling a need to keep busy as a way of handling the unpleasant feelings of grief. Neither way is right or wrong; they are just different from each other. (For a more in-depth discussion of this, see my article, How We Mourn: Understanding Our Differences.) The behavior you’re seeing in the widower you’re dating isn’t necessarily unhealthy; it may be perfectly understandable and normal under the circumstances in which this man finds himself.
I don’t know how long after your spouses died that the two of you began dating, and I don’t know what, if any, grief work either of you did in the aftermath of your spouses’ deaths, or how either of you came to terms with your losses. I could speculate on where your man is with his grief at this point in time, but you both are in a better position to evaluate that than I am.
Clearly you have a problem with his behavior in his continuing to publish the pictures of his late wife, but does this man see it as a problem? Has he shared with you any concerns about his progress in coming to terms with this death? Is there any evidence that he is unhappy or unable to function normally in his life (e.g., having trouble at work, or in his relationships with you and with others)? Keep in mind that this is his loss and his grief process, and only he knows where he is with all of this. So I encourage you to have an honest talk with him and discuss your concerns directly with him.
I also think you need to pay attention to what your own heart and mind are telling you. You are the best judge of what you are willing to tolerate in your relationship with this man, regardless of how “normal” or how “abnormal” he (or anyone else) considers his behavior to be. You say that this is causing you concern not only for your health and that of the man you are dating, but for your relationship as well. If you feel that strongly about this, perhaps you’ve already made your decision.
I hope what I’ve said is helpful to you, my dear, and whatever you decide, please know that I’m thinking of you and wishing you all the best.
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- On Dating A Widower
- How We Mourn: Understanding Our Differences
- Tips for Coping with Anniversary Reactions in Grief