Grief and new partners

A year ago, a longtime friend lost his wife, Jenny, to a brain cancer that killed her in two months. When Jenny died, he was adrift in the rambling house she had filled with her paintings and sculpture. An ebullient woman with a hooting, wild laugh, Jenny brought two young sons to their twenty-year marriage; Dave thrived in the vibrancy of family life. By last Christmas, he had a new girlfriend, Martina, news he announced during our holiday phone chat.

"Women grieve, men replace", another friend had once tartly commented, but by this spring the romance had withered. When I asked what happened, he said, "She wanted me to call her every evening to talk about her day, my day." Martina, widowed too, but ten years earlier, was eager for connection.

I listened beyond his bald words: Dave was not ready for the dailiness of coupled life, to be "us". "I think I used her to get out of grieving", he said, and told me that last week he'd taken a solo road trip. Overcome by the empty seat next to him, he pulled to the shoulder and cried.

A growing number of friends are now like Dave; what was once the province of my mother's bridge group is upon us. The bereaved cope with with waves of lurching sadness, the hallucinatory sense that the partner is just out of sight, and their friends' notions of support.

To be a friend to a widow is to witness the past, to tend their beloved's memory. Dave likes to talk about the small details, about how he handled the interior cleaning, she did the exterior, because she hated dusting and vacuuming. "Jenny's still looking after the garden", Dave told me, "because I use her pension cheques to pay the landscaping service."

And in time, being that friend may mean welcoming someone else. A new companion of the widow or widower is under the microscope, that's for sure, and friends' assessments are more severe after a death than a divorce. Unlike an ex, the decedent is remembered with all luminous qualities intact, even magnified: no one could roast a chicken like him, and the way he told a story!

The newcomer who steps into the clique is brave, but given a chance, will in time be seen for his or her merits. (One friend says she will never again date a recent widower, having been told by one  man's protective pal that she "sure wasn't our Gretchen". "I couldn't agree more", she replied.)

Occasionally the opposite happens; the prospective partner is hailed with enthusiasm usually reserved for a free pair of courtside seats. Relieved friends can joke again, the chair at the table is filled.  Sometimes, a fervent wish for the widow's renewed happiness makes them overlook warning signs. When Grace introduced her new boyfriend, Cam, it took awhile for her friends to admit that he was a scarily heavy drinker; when Grace brought it up, they initially told her no, it wasn't out of hand.  But one weekend when Grace and Cam were guests at a cottage, he passed out, and everyone had to face facts.

I ran into another old friend in a shop last time I was in Toronto. I recognized him immediately, but who was that brunette? He said, "This my new partner, Sarah." She extended her hand. I must have paused a second too long, thinking of his marvelous wife, who had died a couple of years ago.

He smiled sympathetically, and said, "La vie continue."








12 comments

LauraH said...

Well, this post certainly brought up many many thoughts and memories. I could go on but will just speak to some of the many changes in the years following the death of a partner/spouse. One of those changes is the shifting and often loss of old friendships. Many friends cannot seem to handle the death and the survivor's emotions. These losses are like a second wave of change and adjustment washing over your life. Trying to re-make your life, including finding new friends, can take a long time and be very difficult. Or in some cases, seems to happen rather rapidly.

Your friend is lucky to be able to turn to you.

Madame Là-bas said...

These years are often years of change and of loss. Couple-based friendships are often dependent on maintaining the status quo, I think. I haven't lost a partner through death but my mother struggles after losing a husband of 60+ years.

Duchesse said...

LauraH: Julian Barnes'"The Sense of an Ending" has been an enduring help, encouraging me to not avoid deeper conversation with him. Barnes, one of the best writers I've ever read, has biting words (and in some cases, fury he realizes was displacement) for how friends acted when he suddenly lost his wife.

I have seen that any kind of significant loss really shows whether friendships were superficial (which is still to say pleasant) or deeper.


une femme said...

My Dad remarried (3rd wife) less than a year after his 2nd wife passed from cancer. I know it was hard for a lot of people in the family to accept, and some of my step-siblings resent her to this day (and some more recent actions on her part have compounded the issues). But my Dad was never one who could be without a wife...he'd married the second wife days after his divorce from our mother was final. I think he was one of those "replace" kind of men.

I know this is something we'll all have to deal with sooner or later, and I hope that I can be a supportive and sympathetic friend to those who suffer the loss of a spouse or partner.

lagatta à montréal said...

Me, not a spouse, or a companion or partner in the sexual sense, but my 20yr, 3mo black half-Siamese tomcat Renzo died a few days ago, of a mercifully brief and swift acute kidney failure. Like many or most cats that great age, he had some degree of kidney failure for a few years, but seemed happy to be alive, then it took a turn for the worse.

I have never lived with any living being for that long, unless you count the unkillable sansevieria plant that is a bit older than he was... Not with any spouse, relative or friend, or other living creature. I'm terribly sad to lose my little buddy, but relieved that he had a relatively easy end, and died at home.

Certainly by 50 or so one has at least a couple of widowed friends; and doing a quick survey, more of the men I know quickly "replaced" their wife than the women their husband, and my sample of same-sex couples close to me fortunately has not produced such grief yet.

Is it because (straight) men have more choice, or find life harder without a spouse?

Duchesse, I notice that you have a "death" tag, which is welcome realism, but no "birth" tag, despite the joy of becoming grandparents...

emma said...

This resonates with me...and old friend (30 plus years) whose spouse died a year ago, is now seeing someone she met at a bereavement group. She says they are "just friends", but I wonder how I'll feel about her new friend, if he becomes "someone more than just friends"...She adored her husband. I know how hard it's been, and how lonely she's felt.
I suppose, if my friend likes him... And there are no warning signs, like passing out?! I'll be welcoming. (I hope!)

Duchesse said...

lagatta: I am so very sorry you lost Renzo. Our animals are full family members, and leave such a hole in our hearts when they die.

emma: I too have friends who met new partners at bereavement groups. One had two men fighting for her. (She declined both, as it turned out.)

Sometimes the relationship flourishes, sometimes not. "Just friends" may be comforting and sufficient for these two.

Mardel said...

An interesting post. Having lost a spouse, and also having only fairly recently started dating, although slowly, I suppose I should have something worthwhile to add, but I don't. Relationships are so complex, even with friends.

My mother was very upset when my brother started a serious relationship with a woman less than a year after his wife of 20 years died following a 2 year struggle with cancer. 7 years later, our mom now loves her new daughter-in-law. As for me however, my mom has pretty much implied that she hopes I will follow her path of permanent widowhood (my dad died when my mom was in her late 40s). It is my intention simply to embrace life and be open to possibilities, including relationship possibilities. I'll be fine whatever happens. I hope my friends and family will be equally open when the occasion arises.

Julie said...

Many years ago a friend said that she hoped her husband remarried quickly if she died. Her logic was that he loved being married and couldn't wait to do it again. The ultimate compliment to their marriage.

Unless we spot something obviously wrong (drunk, gold digger, etc) with the new person, it is unfair to judge. Who knows what we would want or need or even have the opportunity to experience.

Duchesse said...

Julie: I find your friend's comment intriguing; she knows he tends toward the uxurious. At the same time, I hope he'd make a considered choice (and I am guessing she would, too.) Several friends had spouses who, when dying, expressed their wishes that their mates find love again, and marry if they wished. One even promoted marriage to her sister (tried, did not last.)

Bereavement is a time when the surviving partner is vulnerable, raw, and often physically depleted. All of us are sitting ducks for poor choices when we're in that shape. I've seen successful fairly immediate remarriages (six months or less) and a few that were not.

Before my father died, he said to my mother (seriously) "Don't marry the first guy who asks you". We thought that this was especially sweet-that he saw her as beset by suitors- since she was in her mid-80s.

susan burpee said...

What a wonderful post, Duchesse. My mum lost my step-dad, her husband of 40 years, eight years ago. As well as a very dear female friend within a few months. And funnily enough now she has become friends with the husband of her friend. A very, very shy man, with whom she had probably exchanged a sentence or two over many years. They are best phone friends. Mum is 88 and he is over 90. They talk at least once a week. Mum said, a few days ago, that sometimes she finishes her dinner, changes into her nightie, and takes a cup of tea and the phone to bed. Then she and Lloyd talk for hours. He tells her his war stories; she tells him how to bake bread, which he has tackled following the death of his wife. They catch up with and check up on each other. I think that's such a wonderful story!

Duchesse said...

Susan: What a sweet connection, and I am so happy your mum has that.