If the death of parents and grandparents represent the loss of our connections to generations past, the death of a spouse/partner represents the loss of a major connection we have with the present and foreseeable future. The love and the bonds we have for our spouse/partner give us an almost mystical completion of ourselves. When death visits and disrupts those bonds, we can like feel that not only did our spouse die, but so did a part of us.
I believe that the literature dedicated to attempting to describe the angst and anguish of a spouse/partner’s death is some of the most moving, beautiful, heart-felt writings that exist. And yet, as eloquent as the authors may be, they are still unable to fully describe in words alone the love and pain a bereaved spouse/partner has to endure. I recognize that I am unable to come even close to the expressing that mystery adequately, so I will not make the attempt. Instead, I direct you to such books as A Grief Observed
by C.S. Lewis; The Soul in Grief
by Robert Romanyshyn; and the classic poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Wadsworth, William Cullen Bryant, etc.
What I want to describe here are some of the significant secondary losses associated with the death of a spouse/partner. In my experience, I have found that there are two major groups of secondary losses: those that revolve around the relative roles of the two individuals in their relationship and those that revolve around the identity of the bereaved.
Within each marriage or committed relationship, certain roles gravitate to each of the individuals. Some of those roles are of a practical matter such as major breadwinner, financial manager, cook, repairperson, housekeeper, social planner, etc. Once one of those individuals is no longer present, the responsibility for fulfilling the demands of that person’s roles falls to the remaining person. With varying degrees of effort, a bereaved spouse who is not accustomed to cooking, balancing a checkbook, earning a supportable income, etc. can learn and perform what he/she needs to do. In many cases, learning and accomplishing those skills can be a major boost to the bereaved person’s self-esteem – they are able to accomplish what they never thought they would ever be able to do.
However, other roles of the deceased – lover, companion, confidant, advocate, caretaker, etc. – cannot be learned. These require the presence of another human being. When we are bereaved, we are alone, even in a crowded room, and no well-meaning friend, child, relative, etc. can fill our void. Sometimes the feeling of loneliness becomes so great (I have seen this more often with widowers) that we have to do something; we have to replace the deceased! In an effort to erase the loneliness and get perceived stability back in our lives, we try to shortcut our mourning and prematurely enter into another relationship. Unfortunately, it very seldom works the way we envision. Our new wife, husband, or lover is NOT the same person we lost. We find that it is impossible to re-capture the relationship that previously existed. Many times, we find our efforts to re-acquire the happiness we once had are futile. In its place, disappointment sets in and we become miserable and despondent. All too often, the result is divorce accompanied by renewed and intensified grief over an additional loss.
How can someone know when it is safe to enter into another long-term committed relationship after the death of a spouse/partner? As I have written so often before, there is no magical formula. Mourning takes time. How much time depends on the needs of the bereaved person; each situation is unique. I counsel people that they will know when they are ready when they are able to look into the eye of that person they see in the mirror every morning and KNOW what their true intention is. If they can be honest with themselves and realize they are looking for a replacement, then the time is not right. If they can acknowledge they really love this new person for all that he/she is, then it is time to consider the possibilities seriously. That day may come after one year, two years, five years, or more.
I might also add that loving another does not mean we have to stop loving or are being unfaithful to the one we lost. Sometimes I believe we do not give ourselves enough credit – our hearts are big enough to hold the love we continue to have for our deceased husband, wife, or partner as well as the love we have for our new one. We do not have to consider our new love to be better or worse than our old love, it is merely different – different people, different love.