Monday, January 29, 2018

In Grief: When Dating Is Complicated

[Reviewed and updated January 29, 2023]

There's no limit to how complicated things can get, on account of one thing always leading to another.  ~ E.B. White

A reader writes: My husband of 20 years died  nearly two years ago. It was a second marriage for both of us. He was several years older than I. He had children and so did I. His death from esophageal cancer was a long and difficult one, and during the last part of his life I had some disputes with some of his grown kids over their not helping me to care for him. So after a year I went to a support group at my church with people who had lost spouses or someone close to them. I met a man there who had lost his girlfriend of eight years to breast cancer. Her death had happened only one month before, so things were still quite raw for him. He pursued me via phone calls and we have been seeing each other for the last eight months. About a month ago he started to have a lot of problems with the intimacy part of our relationship.
He says he is feeling terribly guilty about us regarding his deceased girlfriend. I've been suggesting he go for therapy himself. The strange thing is that we see each other daily and we hug and kiss, etc. But I miss very much what we had. We are both in our 50's and quite attractive people. I'm just quite confused about what is going on. He has lots of other things to deal with, such as an unwed 23-year-old daughter with two young children (by two different fathers) living with him. He also has a 17-year-old son who lives with his ex-wife but spends most of his time at his dad's. In addition, he is in the middle of losing his job and will have to find a new one soon. It seems I've become his chief supporter, and he tells me I'm the only one that he can really talk to. So I'm looking for any advice you may have. Thank you!

My response: I'm so sorry to learn of the difficulties you're having in this relationship. Life can certainly be complicated, can't it? You asked for my advice as to what you can do in this situation. Since I don't know your friend and how he sees his own circumstances, I'm not sure I know the answer to that question, but I will tell you what I think.

You say that although this man initiated a relationship with you and you've been seeing each other for some time, he now seems burdened with feelings of disloyalty and guilt, as well as all the other matters that are complicating his life. The behavior you describe (his starting to have a lot of problems with intimacy) could very well be related to unresolved or complicated grief issues. You also say he "only lost his girlfriend," but, as I'm sure you know, the intensity of anyone's grief is directly related to the level of attachment to the person who died and to the role the person played in the bereaved person's life, so this man is the only one who can measure how much he lost when this woman died.

That said, it also looks as if he has an awful lot of other "stuff" going on in his life, what with grown children who seem to still be dependent on him, difficulties with his job, etc. ~ all factors that could complicate his grief process significantly. Regardless of the circumstances, though, any person in the freshest throes of grief can look rather "crazy" to the rest of us, especially when that first wave of shock and disbelief wears off. Also, when evaluating someone else's grief as normal or abnormal, it's extremely 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. The sorrow that normally accompanies grief can look a lot like "depression" to people unfamiliar with grief. More often than not, however, what you're seeing is a very normal reaction: a natural response to losing a loved one ~ at least, natural for this particular man in these particular circumstances.

I think that is wise that you've encouraged him to seek professional counseling or therapy, especially given everything else that may be complicating his grief. It seems to me that it would be difficult if not impossible for you to be the only one to help this man with all these issues. Of course, not everyone wants or needs outside help with grief, but it's important to know that it's there if it's needed, and it's very reassuring to know that the pain of grief does not have to be borne alone. I think what's important here is not that you assume the role of counselor yourself, but rather that you make yourself aware of what bereavement resources are available to your friend and gently encourage him to seek outside professional help. Whether he agrees to take advantage of such resources is really up to him, but certainly you can go so far as to help him find out what and where they are.

I don't know whether you've taken the time to explore my blog, but I hope you will do so. If your friend has access to a computer, at some point you may want to invite him to do so also. You both will find several articles I've written on various aspects of grief and loss under the Marty’s Articles tab at the top of this page, as well as references to helpful writings by others. See also my website’s Comfort for Grieving Hearts page, which contains many moving pieces too. As I gather you've learned from your own experience as a widow participating in a grief support group, just knowing what normal grief looks like, knowing what to expect in the days and weeks ahead and knowing how to manage our reactions can be very helpful, especially if this is your friend's first experience with losing a loved one to death.

I understand that you are missing what the two of you had in the initial phase of your relationship, and I think it's only human for you to feel uncertain as to where you stand in this man's life. Unfortunately you have no control over any of the circumstances your friend finds himself in right now, and only you can decide if he is worth holding onto, along with all the excess baggage he is carrying. If you truly believe that he is that special, then all you can do is be as patient, as kind and as loving toward him as you can be ~ and hold onto the belief that if the love between the two of you is true, it will be strong enough to withstand the impact of these events in both your lives. Sometimes all we have in life to get us through the most difficult and challenging times are hope, faith and love.

I hope this information proves helpful to you, my friend. Above all, if you decide this man is important enough to keep in your life, please be patient with him. Grief work is some of the most difficult work he will ever have to do, and it will help him to know that you will let him do it at his own pace, and that you don't expect him to have to do it all alone. You can give him no greater expression of your love than that.

Please know that I am wishing you both the peace and healing you deserve.

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