My partner is widowed: so what does that mean for our relationship?By Emma Pearson
February 8, 2023
Posted on 2nd April 2021, written on 26th March 2021
Image by Sarah Treanor, fellow widbud, on www.streanor.com
My name is Neil, aka “Medjool”.
As of June 2019, I have been fortunate enough to have entered the life and heart of Emma, who keeps this blogsite.
Emma lost her husband, Mike, almost 4 years ago. She lost their youngest daughter, Julia, to grief-related suicide, 21 months ago. She had also lost her younger brother, Edward, and a very good friend, Don, shortly before Mike’s death.
Some time ago, Emma asked if I would be willing to write about my experience of being in relationship with her, as a widow. I am happy to do so, while pointing out two important caveats:
- Firstly, every relationship is unique. And because of that, I don’t want to appear to disseminate wisdom for others. I believe that it is in the connections, the joining of our personal experiences, stories, questions and concerns, that our points of view are shaped and enriched.
- Secondly, grief and mourning are such integral parts of Emma. I cannot distinguish, cannot separate, in terms of how we love one another, what is connected, or not connected, to her losses.
With these caveats in mind, I return to the original question: What is the impact of widowhood, of my partner’s multiple losses, on our relationship? What, from this angle, is different in this particular relationship from others I have been in before?
Loving one another while also wishing that this new relationship didn’t need to be
A first insight comes from the absurdity of death itself. I only entered Emma’s life because Mike died. She didn’t leave Mike. She didn’t want that relationship to end. Mike died. And since I love Emma, part of me wishes that she could still have Mike, rather than me, by her side today. And since she loves him deeply, how could she not wish that for herself also? “You are ‘Number Two’, not ‘Second Best’”, she tells me often. Loving one another while also wishing that this relationship didn’t need to exist. I have to classify this absurd contradiction in the unfathomable, non-rationalisable aspects of life. Concepts beyond my understanding, and which therefore I simply have to accept.
The rich gifts inherent in the other’s losses and bereavement
A second insight comes from my belief that, at some level, we choose our close relationships according to their potential to help us grow. Put another way: being in relationship with someone like Emma, who not only lives with deep grief, but who does so in a deeply thoughtful and self-reflective way, allows me the opportunity of observing her journey close up, and witness what is mobilised or created. It means learning how to better accompany those struck down by grief and loss. It means learning how to be with myself when big loss came into my life (I lost my mother this last year). It also means learning to accept my own mortality. And, above all, and this I learn directly from observing Emma, it is learning to live better each day, with increased presence, gratitude, compassion, and courage.
An invitation to love more: both oneself and the other
Grief is extraordinarily demanding, trying and tiring, and sometimes absorbs all of our energy. Because of this, Emma is sometimes simply not “available”, not capable of being fully present, in our relationship. Inevitably, these “unavailabilities” are – like any emotional fluctuation – not planned for in our diaries. They can pop up anytime, for example, in the middle of a romantic weekend in the mountains. The lack of availability manifests itself by Emma withdrawing, my feeling powerless to help her, and wondering whether I should stay close by, or leave and give her space.
In these tricky situations, two contrasting voices speak up in my head. One tells me to keep quiet: “Who are you to complain, when you have no idea of what Emma is going through?” The other urges me to go within and ask: If Love were my counsellor, what would it tell me to do? How would Love help me be? How can I better love myself in this situation, and not rely on Emma’s love, resenting her when it’s not fully available? How can I keep loving Emma, with full compassion, witnessing her suffering, without being able to help her?
I am learning that REACTING to these situations, and wanting just to soothe my own hurts, gets me nowhere. If I harboured a secret wish of being her “knight in shining armour” and “helping her heal”, our relationship would never have begun. Indeed, her moments of emotional unavailability are invitations for me to come back to myself, to take better care of myself, and then to RESPOND, out of love, towards Emma, after getting present in my body, heart and mind.
And of course, moments or periods of emotional unavailability occur from time to time with all couples. But they are usually connected to daily life – professional tension, tiredness, etc. – which seem less ‘worthy’ than bereavement. It can be tempting, in these situations, just to blame the other person. But when the other person is bereaved, such a way of reacting is not possible.
Ménage à trois
Emma told me at the start of our relationship that Mike would always be part of her life. That she would continue to love him. There are many pictures of him around her house and we talk about him often. A sort of ‘ménage à trois’: Emma, Mike – stories, memories, his legacy – and me. To my surprise, this doesn’t bother me at all. On the contrary: I love Mike, though sadly, I never met him.
I love Mike because he shared almost 30 years of love and happiness with Emma. Through this, Emma enjoyed a long, happy and loving relationship, and developed the skills, knowledge and wisdom to build a relationship anew. Skills of listening, dialoguing, sharing, and generous attention to herself, to me, and to our relationship. Knowhow that, based on my own experiences, is not so commonly found on dating sites, and all the more precious for someone wanting a relationship with all the conditions necessary for growth and flourishing.
Finally, I love Mike because he knows Emma so well that, in the rare situations where I am at a loss, where I don’t know what to do with her pain, I can ask him for advice. And he answers every time, speaking through my own heart.
Our society does not like to talk about death. Or sadness. Or grief. Or loss.
But this does not stop the bereaved from loving life. Indeed, the very act of accompanying a spouse – or other loved one – right to the very end, touches into the very sacredness of life.
Sharing my life with a widow, a multiply-bereaved widow, encourages me to live my life even better, to celebrate it every day with love. The task is not always easy, but as long as the few hiccups are kept in perspective and put in their rightful place, it becomes a rich source of growth.
So yes – there can be new love, love-life – or love-lives – after the loss of one’s partner. Grief and new emotional relationship(s) are not incompatible. On condition that sufficient space is made for grief in the new relationship, as with all other life experiences of either partner.
Written from the point of view of the new partner.
26th March 2021, for Emma’s birthday on 27th March.
Translated from the original French thanks in large part to Deepl and in small part to Emma.