I have heard the words, I will never marry (or meet anyone) ever again many times in and out of the counselling room, from bereaved partners and spouses. I understand deeply that this is how they feel. The weight of their grief is so heavy they cannot see even a day ahead in the early days of grief. They are in the here and now each moment, struggling to make it to the end of the day and through the night, certainly not looking ahead to the future. As the weeks, months and years go by, they still feel strongly connected to the person who has died, quite rightly so.
At this point, I always remind myself that the human spirit is more resilient than we imagine, that they will have a future and someone new might be there too. In other words, I see it as my job to hold the hope because there is always hope, even when they feel at their lowest ebb. We human beings are social animals, we like to belong to groups and a family is a group, as is a couple within a family. Being wanted and needed are two human core conditions and they give our life purpose and meaning.
I have noticed that often, men who have been happily married want to be again, and might look to find someone new relatively quickly or a relationship possibility presents itself and is taken up. Being in love can offer a pressure valve for the intense feelings of loneliness in grief, there is nothing wrong with that! It counterbalances the loss.
Women usually (but not always) take longer to feel they are at a point where they might consider or even want a new relationship. Of course, there are those spouses who vow they will never marry again and they don’t, because that is the right decision for them.
What happens when someone enters into a new relationship after a bereavement?
On the one hand, it can be wonderful, it can be a diversion, it can inspire and energise, it might make them feel alive again and it can offer comfort and sex (often sorely missed and longed for). On the other hand though, it can be a confusing time. They might find themselves missing the things their partner used to do or the way they did it (the agonising scene in The Things We Lost In The Fire, when Halle Berry asks her friend to hold her just ‘so’ and rub her ear the way her husband used to, comes to mind) . They may have a different sexual chemistry. It might be that there are tensions with either partner’s children which make the relationship more tricky. They might like completely different things to the partner who died (eg. she loved going to the theatre and the new girlfriend loves watching horse-racing).
It can feel right whilst it feels wrong. I think this is because when the bereaved meet someone new, they can be wracked with guilt. What does it mean that I have met someone else? Have I left her behind? Am I supposed to forget her? Does it mean I don’t love him anymore? Do I have to keep these feelings secret? Am I betraying him? I feel like a bigamist? I love my wife more than my new partner, is that fair? I am having a life when he won’t ever have that again, I feel so upset for him.
What advice can I offer those embarking on new relationships and the family and friends who support them and love them?
Remember, first and foremost you never know when love will come calling. Love is no respecter of convenience or timing! These things are often out of our hands and in the lap of the Gods (though I accept that internet dating might increase your chances expotentially!)
For those supporting the bereaved, please hold your judgements. The bereaved are often deeply lonely (even in company) and it is normal to want to be in relationship. There is nothing wrong with that, if it is what they want. No doubt you miss their partner too, but try and accept that things will move forward, even if you don’t want them to, (which is particularly difficult for parents-in-law as it can seem like their dead child is being left behind).
To those of you entering new relationships I would say, remember you don’t have to leave your first partner behind, you carry them with you into your new relationship in your heart, in your head and in your memories. In the same way we bring the experiences and memories of childhood into adulthood, so you bring your experiences and love for your partner into your new relationship. Hopefully your new partner will feel no jealousy about that and will be understanding and allow you your moments or days of grief. Because you will still grieve for them that is natural and it is the way of things and I imagine you wouldn’t want it any different.
I remember an elderly man I knew many years ago, who told me he had lost three wives to cancer in his lifetime but he had loved them all very much and they were all completely different personalities. It gave me so much hope that a death does not mean the end of the story, even when we feel it does.
If you are confused about your new relationship and would like to try counselling, you can contact me here.
There are people who are not able to be seen to grieve because their grief is not recognised or accepted by society or accepted. Who are they?
To name a few examples, they are secret partners, either mistresses or lovers. They are the hidden or unacknowledged children of mothers or fathers who are married to other people, who are not their parent. They are women (of all ages) who have given up their babies after a secret pregnancy. They are the first wives or husbands who have been cut out of the new life that their partner has forged with another. They are people who are secretly in love with another, even though they may never have acted on that love. They are men and women who may be married, possibly with children, but feel unable to come out as gay out of fear, duty or love for their families and children. They are adults who still hold their first loves (or subsequent ones) in a special place in their heart but cannot admit that within their relationships now, for fear of hurting their partner or inducing their anger. They are the second generation of a family who has had a deep trauma in the past. They are the foreign children who moved countries often due to their parent’s jobs, and who leave behind deep friendships and feel fractured by that. It can even be someone who feels deep grief at the death of a celebrity, which would be looked on as ridiculous by others. It can also be anyone who is grieving whose close circle thinks they should be ‘over it’ already, and believe there is a time limit on grief, so their grief goes underground. In simple terms it is any unacknowledged grief, or grief which is frowned on by society.
For these people grief is hugely difficult because it has to be private, unacknowledged, silent, secret or suppressed. There is a name for this type of mourning, it is called disenfranchised grief.
If you have ever had a wave of grief wash over you, you can appreciate how hard it would be to stop that torrent of tears and mixed emotions, but this is the task that faces those who grieve inside themselves. We might say they have a river of grief running through them but it has to be dammed at the tear ducts and in their mouth, nothing can leak out.
One of the most important things in grief is having support but this is often not the case in disenfranchised grief. If the bereaved have to contain their grief on a daily basis, it can have a profound affect on them both physically and emotionally. There is a propensity to depression, to becoming unwell, to fatigue and a sense of isolation and emptiness which is deeply felt. It is a very lonely place to be and sometimes these feelings are held onto for years. In fact sometimes families only find out about it after a death if they find letters, or a final letter telling their loved ones story.
When grief can be expressed openly and there is good support from family and friends, over a long period of time the griever can eventually come to terms with the loss. This is not the case for those who grieve secretly. It is much harder to find peace in the longer term. The grief can become like a stone which is carried around in their heart making them feel literally heavy hearted for years to come. The paradox is that many people would be empathetic and understanding but they are not able to offer that support because they don't know since the griever has said nothing.
Where can help be found you if you are carrying a secret grief inside of yourself?
I would say that counselling offers a neutral place to talk it through and is one option available to you. Perhaps, if you have a faith, a religious guide or minister could offer a place to talk and share your unhappiness. Could you join a bereavement group in your area? Most groups have a rule of confidentiality which goes along the lines of what is spoken and heard in the group, stays in the group. You could look for a group further away from home if you were particularly worried about gossip or judgement. Could you find one trustworthy friend in whom to confide? That sort of understanding from just one person can make a huge difference.