In a man’s life there is nothing that can compare with the pain, confusion and total disruption of one’s life that is caused by the loss of a spouse. Regardless of age, the death of his wife has a profound impact on a man. It leaves him angry, scared, bitter, lonely and with feelings of hopelessness and despair – often all at the same time or in random, unannounced waves. Whether his wife’s death was expected due to a long illness or sudden and tragic, most men eventually come to a place where they once again long for the companionship of a woman. Along with this yearning there is usually confusion and guilt as a man struggles to find a place for the love he still feels for his dead wife and the desire for a new love. While love is never easy, there are unique and significant challenges presented to widowers. And for those of us who are also now single fathers, another set of challenges.
PREPARING YOUR CHILDREN AND FAMILY
The night my wife died of breast cancer, my then 10-year-old son, Joshua, sat me down and wanted me to promise him that I would never get married again. What ensued was a several months long battle of the wits as I tried to help him understand and come to grips with the fact that Dad was a man with needs and desires. The longing for companionship and intimacy is a natural and powerful one. I explained to him that his mother and I had discussed the inevitability of my meeting and marrying again. Over time he came to understand that my loving another woman didn’t negate the love I had for his mother any more than my love for him negated my love for his sister. He grew to accept the concept of companionship as necessary and healthy. He also realized that eventually having another adult in the house would certainly help with the sometimes overwhelming burden of housekeeping.
Be open and honest with your children regarding your desires and needs. Tailor your conversation and subject matter to the appropriate age-levels of your kids – having separate conversations with each one as necessary. Do not expect them to immediately understand or accept your dating again, but remain firm in your intentions to do so. Do not allow your children to dictate any area of your life, least of all your social life. Remember, your happiness will bring a measure of the same to your household.
Telling your family members, especially the in-laws, is often difficult. An already distressing situation is only further confused by the role your in-laws will now play in the rest of your life. If you do not have children, they will most likely fade out of your life to become distant acquaintances. But if there are kids involved, you have to accept the fact that you are inextricably linked to your wife and the past through your in-laws. Timing is everything when it comes to dealing with your in-laws – too soon and they may be offended – too long and they may butt in – but ultimately you have to follow your heart. I told my mother-in-law of my intentions to date again through a lengthy and emotion-ridden e-mail. I told her of the guilt I felt for moving on and how I hoped she and my father-in-law would not be offended. She was gracious and encouraging in her response – understanding my desire and need for love and companionship. I consider myself fortunate to have such loving and understanding in-laws. Not every widower will be as lucky.
Once again, as with your children, be open and honest about your intentions to date again. Share your feelings of doubt or guilt with your family. Unless they are heartless wonders they will have some measure of compassion. You have to remember that everyone involved is in some stage of the grieving process and others may not have progressed to the point you find yourself. Understand if your family is not immediately thrilled by your intentions to move along. Just as you had to come to grips with the finality of your wife’s death, so they too must learn to accept that life goes on. Be respectful of their feelings and play down your first few forays into the dating scene.
WHEN TO DATE AGAIN
Like most issues of love, deciding when to date again is highly personal and depends entirely on the individual’s desire to do so. Once you have come to that place where you feel comfortable with your “singleness”, you will naturally begin to scout around for prospects. And, if you take too long to begin your hunt, rest assured your well-meaning friends and family will begin presenting you with potential love-interests. If you are young and lonely as I was, you may find that you start dating again too soon. “Too soon” meaning before you had completed the bulk of the grieving process and were ready to move on unfettered by the past.
My first feeble attempts were small disasters as I unloaded all my emotional baggage and attempted to be a “modern man” and share my every thought and feeling. Resist the temptation to share the minutiae of your marriage and the death of your spouse. These things are best left within the confines of the therapist’s office or with a trusted buddy. Just as no woman wants to hear about your previous girlfriends, they especially don’t want to hear about your dead wife. Depending upon your age, how long you were married and how much dating you did before you were married, things may have changed considerably in the singles scene and your skills may need honing. I recommend finding a few good books on dating and courtship or reading any of the helpful and informative articles found on this website as I did.
I discovered right away that introducing every date to my children was stressful and disruptive to all parties. My children were confused at Daddy’s rotating list of “friends” and often saddened and upset when it was learned that a particularly nice one wouldn’t be making a return appearance. I decided very quickly that I had to establish some guidelines for introducing my children to my dates. No introductions for 30 days turned out to be a good rule of thumb, it gave my new woman and me time to get to know one another as individuals and decide whether there was sufficient spark to take the relationship to the next level.
This does not mean, however, that you keep your dating a secret from your kids. I found it perfectly acceptable to inform my kids that I would be going out for the evening and would include a brief run down of where we would be going, the woman’s name and age (a big issue for my son who didn’t want me dating anyone who couldn’t theoretically be his mother). It is important to respect your children’s need to know as the tables will eventually turn and you’ll expect the same courtesy when they become teenagers. Once it is time to make introductions I like to plan a family-friendly afternoon together. Usually lunch and then a trip to the miniature golf course, go-carts, or an all-inclusive fun-spot like Chuck E. Cheese or the likes. I try to limit our total exposure time to three hours, just long enough for everyone to get a feel for one another and for me to see how my new love interacts with my kids. If she has kids it’s also an opportunity to see how Brady-like our bunch is.
This is often the trickiest part of developing a new relationship. You certainly don’t want to withhold the fact that you are a widower or a single parent from your date as it distinctly shapes the development of the relationship. At the same time, you have to find a balance between the details of your past and the single man you are presently. I found that some women were completely comfortable with my widowhood and looked at my marriage as they would any man’s past relationships. Others, however, had an evidently uncontrollable urge to question me on a very personal level – to the point of making me painfully uncomfortable.
I now make it a point to explain up front the nature of my wife’s illness, how long it has been since she died, and that I have moved on with my life. I have found that being open initially alleviates any concerns my date may have about competing with the memory of my wife, answers basic questions she may have about her death and allows her to relax knowing that I am not a ticking emotional–time-bomb. As the relationship develops you will find ample opportunity to comfortably share stories of your past with one another. Don’t feel guilty for doing so, after all, your wife and marriage was an important part of your life.
Talking with your date about your children is usually much easier and comes naturally. Many of the women I have dated are single parents also and thus we have a common bond – always a plus when developing a relationship. I make my dates aware of my 30-day policy with a brief explanation of why. They have always been understanding and often times appreciative because it allows them the time to get to know me first. I also make a habit of not talking about my children all the time – especially with women who have no children. You want your date to get to know you as an individual. She understands you are a father and any traits she is looking for will naturally present themselves in your personality. While women are generally attracted to men who are nurturing and caring, they are equally turned-off by men who obsess about their children, an indicator that he doesn’t have room in his life for anyone else.
Losing a spouse is difficult no matter what the circumstances. Finding a way to grieve and heal so that you can love again is possible. Don’t overlook the resources offered by therapists, family and school counselors, and clergy. Ultimately, time is the best prescription for grief, but with perseverance and dedication you can make the transition from widower to single man to husband again with ease and maintain the respect of your children and family.