When the love of your life has died, the future looks painfully bleak, lonely and empty. The last thing on anyone’s mind at that point is falling in love again. As a therapist, I have heard many different responses to the death of a loved one, but it is never, “who’s next then”. Very often it is the opposite of that, “I will never fall in love again”, and sometimes, “I will never marry again”. Both are understandable responses to a deeply sad situation. I think what people are trying to express is that grief is too overwhelming to see any future, and also that it feels too risky because the pain one suffers, is too excruciating when you are the one left behind.
It used to be the culturally accepted idea that one was supposed to be moving towards ‘getting over’ a death, ‘moving past’ the sadness and grief or ‘letting go’ of the person who died, so somehow one could renew interest in life and magically be normal again. Nowadays thankfully the thinking has changed. The way I describe it to people is that you never forget the beloved, you carry them with you, perhaps metaphorically in your heart, or in your thoughts and memories, but whereas at the beginning of your grief, those places feel very raw and painful, in time the deceased rests peacefully there, causing less distress and disturbance. Everything quietens down but the love is not gone.
So what happens when you fall in love again?
Some people actively go out seeking love and others wait for love to come knocking at their door and occasionally love finds people unexpectedly like on a train, or dog walking (two real examples, honestly I am not making it up). Even if you have vowed never to love again, the thrilling energy that love brings into your life can oust any thoughts of ‘not going there again’ out of your head. It does not matter how old we are, we are all the same when it comes to love. Being wanted, needed, adored, loved and the focus of another’s attention are all heady feelings indeed. They are core human conditions and they make us feel alive, energetic and happy. I have noticed that people (especially men) who have been in a loving marriage do start to yearn for that stability and companionship again), so when it comes calling it is a potent mix of emotions.
So now you are in love and everything is right in your world. You feel part of something again, perhaps protected and nurtured, or that you have a purpose in life, and your focus is quite rightly on the immediacy of the relationship. The problem usually comes when something your new partner does, or doesn’t do for that matter, evokes a wave of grief which comes tumbling in and knocks you for six. Everything that was right in the new relationship now feels somehow wrong. You doubt yourself, you doubt them, your decision making, what you are doing, what you should be doing and anything else you can imagine which could get in the way of a new and loving relationship. There are often tears and angst as to whether you should be in a new relationship at all, because somewhere deep inside of yourself it feels like cheating? The guilt can be crushing. I have heard it said that being in a new marriage after becoming a widow or widower, can feel like you are a bigamist.
Those sorts of feelings are entirely natural and normal. If you return to the idea in the second paragraph that you hold the one you have lost close to you for ever, then you can see that it is entirely possible to love two people at once. Society tells us that when it comes to lovers, it’s not right, so it is quite ingrained in our psyche that you shouldn’t do that. However, you do love two people, it just happens that one of them has sadly died, and the love does not stop, nor should it. In fact how could it? You cannot just turn love off. It is one of life’s great joys to fall in love and if that gift should come calling a second time, embrace it fully, knowing that you still love your first partner and they are along for the ride too!
What really helps is if your new partner understands that it is not either/or, it is both. Hopefully they encourage you to bring up their name, talk about memories of past times, say if you are missing them in particular on a given day, if they encourage photographs of that person to stay up in the house and children are still allowed to love the parent who has died. Hopefully they can support your grief and be a place where you can ‘land’ when you feel overwhelmed, all the time knowing that those feelings will pass by like clouds.
At the same time, it is easy to slip into excluding your new partner a bit too much by not telling them how you are feeling, by comparing them to the former partner out loud (or silently to yourself) too often. Perhaps you keep the ashes in a prominent position, and your new partner feels there are three of you in the new marriage? I sometimes wonder what it is like for the new partner to come into the former marital home? Can it ever feel as if it is their home now? Do some physical things have to be let go of to nurture the new relationship. These things balance delicately in the relationship, but given a warm and loving environment, they are things you can work out together to minimise or ban any feelings of guilt you may carry.
I finish with the simple words of Thomas Hardy, in Far From The Madding Crowd,
Love is a possible strength in an actual weakness.
If you have had experience of finding love again after a bereavement and have something to share, please do below, it might help others.
When someone we love dies, they leave a great big empty space where they should be. We can feel that space and know the shape of it in a thousand different ways. The half of your bed which now remains un-creased, the empty chair in the sitting room, the desk with no occupier in the office, the bare cupboards because you don’t buy certain foods any more, or the decreased washing load which daily shouts at you that they are gone now. Each of these and many more reminders lurk in the everyday. Every one is a potential trigger to renewed sadness, or an outburst of grief at the deep and unfathomable loss.
Whilst you may be able to avoid some triggers to grief quite easily, such as shunning a certain restaurant where you loved to eat together, or deciding not to watch a film that he loved, or listening to a piece of music you chose for the funeral, some are not so easy to avoid. Before someone dies, we never think about these things and we don’t realise how hard the mundane can be in grief. If you think about how much you did together at home, and how many things you did for her at home, you can see where the problems potentially lie.
Cooking is something most newly bereaved people find difficult. With the low energy of early grief it is hard to get up the enthusiasm to cook for one. It reminds you of shared meals, happy conversation and a feeling of togetherness. Some of you might choose not to cook at all and snack only, or some of you might continue as you have but end up cooking too much out of habit. People often say the kitchen feels purposeless and uninviting after a loved one has died. It is a very understandable feeling.
One place people feel this space the most is in the bedroom. It may be that your partner was in hospital for a while, and you may have had a few weeks on your own, or perhaps there was a hospital bed downstairs. Even so, there has probably been years of bed sharing and not having someone there in bed with you now, is very difficult and upsetting. I have known people who have chosen to sleep downstairs instead of going up to bed rather than face that lonely place at night. Others will wait till they are dropping with tiredness before going up, to ensure they fall asleep right away and not have to think about it. Others may lie in bed in the wee hours, yearning for their loved one, maybe wearing their pyjamas or wearing an old sweater which smells of the one they love (all completely normal by the way).
The question is, can any of this be avoided or should it be avoided? The answer is no. It is part of your journey through grief. It is natural and normal to feel the space acutely, and to mourn for your beloved. The saying goes, ‘you cannot go over grief, you cannot go under it, you cannot go around it, you have to go through it’. Grief is a way of honouring the person we love and it keeps them close to us while we need them to be close in our hearts. So each space which triggers our grief, is serving a purpose, it allows us to express our grief and thinking about all the ways we miss that person.
There are a few things that might mitigate the empty space:
Keep the radio or TV on for company. It can be particularly helpful to put them on when you leave the house, so when you come back there is some noise in the background.
Ask friends to make you meals for the freezer for the early days.
Buy some ready-made meals for days when you cannot face cooking.
Accept invitations from people you feel comfortable to be 100% you with. It is company.
Think about changing the furniture around a bit, so it isn’t the same (if that appeals, it absolutely does not for some).
Display photos of your beloved; they can fill the space and be a comfort.
Don’t worry about talking to your loved one; it is perfectly natural to do that.
Sleep in a different room if you want, it might help.
Be gentle with yourself, look after yourself and try and get out into nature one way or another, it is very grounding and restorative.
Take your grief one day at a time. That is enough to cope with, try not to project into the future.
If grief has touched your life and you would like to share any thoughts and ideas as to what helped you cope with the space your loved one left behind, please share here for others.
Photo attribution: Photo credit: THX0477 via Foter.com / CC BY
It’s March, and that time of year when sons and daughters of all ages get to thank their Mothers for everything they do and have done, and tell them that they love them. The signs are afoot, the cards in the shops, the flowers for sale, special displays of gifts and chocolates abound. It’s much anticipated by those whose Mothers are alive, but for those of you whose Mother has died, it can be a different story altogether.
If you are feeling bereft, alone, abandoned, sad, tearful, upset, acutely lonely and orphaned, you are not alone. There is no other day which can propel you back into grief quite as efficiently as Mother’s Day.
Our Mothers are the epicentres of our lives around which we revolve. Rather like the sun and the circulating planets. She shines brightly for us and we always know she is there. This is so crucial in our evolution towards adulthood. She creates loving bonds which allow us to eventually move away from her, explore the world and enter a life of our own. As we move towards adulthood and embrace jobs, travel, relationships and families of our own, we hopefully do it with our Mothers presence in our lives. That steady love she offers us remains as a strong base to which we return to time and time again. It underpins us.
Even if we have had a difficult relationship with our Mother, she may still hold a central place in our life because we think about her so much. We wish we could have had a more loving relationship, we angst about how things could be different, we cling to the vestiges of the relationship and we keep trying to keep it going, or we spend time making sure we don’t, but she may still occupy our minds and create a lot of emotions in us.
Nothing is quite as efficient at highlighting our deep loss as Mothering Sunday. Sometimes the grief creeps us unseen and unbidden for some weeks before the day. We may not have clocked our feelings of unease, unhappiness and renewed grief, but they are unconsciously, or consciously manifesting themselves during February. When the day finally comes there may have been a build-up of profound sadness and the flood gates open.
The pain of not having a loving Mother with you anymore is as deep as it is wide. We look around and see everyone else celebrating, and it exacerbates our loss. Many adult children feel orphaned but it is not something that they are able to say aloud, because orphans are children surely? This is the point though, it isn’t only the adult part of us that misses Mum, it is the child part of us which craves and longs for those loving arms around us again, kissing us, making it all better and sending us back out to face the world. We yearn to have our rock back, the centre of our universe and the one who loved us unconditionally, however awful, naughty or outrageous we were.
There are triggers that can transport us back to our Mums, for example a waft of her perfume, old sayings she used, the smell of a chocolate cake in the oven, memories of times spent together or photographs. These are poignant moments which re-connect us with her. There is a belief about grief which says you cannot go over it, you cannot go under it or around it, you have to go through it. So bearing this in mind, how can you navigate your way through Mothers Day?
What can connect you to your Mother on this Mothering Sunday?
Set time aside for memories, allow them to come freely, don’t keep them at bay.
Buy yourself her perfume, smell has such a strong way of evoking someone.
Look at old photographs, or put one in a frame and give it pride of place on Sunday.
Listen to music she might have liked and that you remember from your childhood.
Wear something she gave you, or a piece of jewellery which was left to you after she died.
Tell your family or friends something about her and bring her into the conversation.
Share your feelings with the ones around you.
Write your Mum a letter and tell her what you want her to know, then burn it outside and send those words into the universe for her to hear.
Write her a Mother’s Day Card if you prefer to do that, it is not mad I promise you!
Remember, it is just a day, the same as the one before it and the one after it, it will pass.
Acknowledge your love, your grief and the child part of you which longs for her.
And if your relationship with your Mother has been difficult or absent, then acknowledge that and share that with someone who loves you. Not everyone loved their Mother and that is OK too.
If you want to share thoughts and feelings about Mothering Sunday to help others, then please join the conversation below. It can help others to know they are not alone in their grief.