One thing I have learned from losing so many people is that everything you feel is normal, for you.
I have been married to my second husband now for about 20 years, after nearly 15 years before spent as a young widow raising my kids alone. My current husband is a wonderful person. The way in which we found each other, as well as the commonalities we found, were clearly (to us) decreed by destiny.
Still, on the anniversary of the tragic, untimely death of my first husband who died in his 30’s, I often have a very bad day. I remember him by lighting a candle and saying a prayer of remembrance that is the memorial ritual of my religion. I don’t follow all of the other traditions of my birth heritage, but this one I do. Sometimes, though not often, I visit his grave and have some quiet moments there. On holidays and special family occasions, I sometimes find myself overcome with sadness, thinking that my first husband has missed so much of the lives of his children, and has never known his granddaughter, the talented and bright daughter of our only biological son, my eldest. These feelings can take me by surprise, since so many years have passed since his death.
A cousin commented to me that she didn’t find it appropriate for me to visit the grave of my late spouse. I don’t know whether she meant she didn’t personally find it appropriate for someone who has remarried, or whether she felt there was a prohibition against this in our religion. My culture is important to me and our holidays hold fond memories and special meaning for me, but I can’t pretend I am very observant in the faith of my forefathers and foremothers. I can’t say I have ever bothered to find out just what she meant, since I know how I feel is “normal” for me, and is ok. In my life, and through my work, I have also known many other widows and widowers who still grieve a deceased spouse, even when they are very happily and successfully remarried.
I don’t live in the past, and in the last decade especially, have consciously worked quite hard on learning to live more and more in the moment. That doesn’t alter the fact that I have a good memory, and that there are wonderful and vivid images and stories etched in my head. These are very much a part of the person I have become. I treasure these memories and don’t want to obliterate and forget them. The life that I lived with my first husband created precious and happy memories, in spite of the struggles we had with his illness the last few years of his life, and the horrific way he died (in a fire) that caused me to suffer for years from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, much diminished now in severity, but still there.
I cannot forget, and don’t want to forget, our time together at college, our first summer on Martha’s Vineyard and subsequent visits there, our life in San Francisco as young adults, the birth of our son, the adoptions of our other kids, our early years of parenting, the purchase of our first home together. I won’t forget our transition from the Haight Ashbury, to the more traditional life we began in Connecticut, or all the other small, commonplace, everyday events we lived through, as well as the momentous ones that fill pages of photo albums, and that occupy space in my brain.
When you are fortunate and blessed enough to find a new love after losing someone through death or divorce, your new partner is getting a person who has been pounded and transformed by the waves of loss and life. Who you are is a composite of who you were, and what you have become as a direct result of all those life experiences. In most cases, your perspectives have changed and your maturity, compassion and wisdom have deepened because of what you have endured. Your new spouse also has a history. You must accept each other, and forge a new path together that doesn’t dwell on the past, but that recognizes and even honors it. There is no place for jealousy in a healthy, committed relationship. Some dictionary synonyms of the word “jealousy” are envy, resentment, covetousness, suspicion, watchfulness, mistrustfulness. These surely don’t sound to me like good characteristics on which to build a successful marriage or relationship.
If your new spouse or partner is upset by your signs of grief for a deceased spouse, perhaps you can provide your partner with this article, in order to open up an honest and heartfelt conversation about both of your feelings. This may help him or her to understand that love and grief are not really finite, or easily explainable. Both love and grief make twists and turns, ebb and flow, even mutate. What you feel about your past is indeed normal for you, and doesn’t diminish what you feel for, or your commitment to, your present, and your future. I believe that when you truly love another, you share in their joys and also in their suffering, and that you feel and demonstrate true compassion for them.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist Monk, teacher, poet, peace activist, said,
“We really have to understand the person we want to love. If our love is only a will to possess, it is not love. If we only think of ourselves, if we know only our own needs and ignore the needs of the other person, we cannot love.”
Iris J. Arenson-Fuller, CPC, ACC, is a Certified Professional Life and Loss Transformation Coach, writer, poet, mom and grandmother