My dad moved on. I seem to be stuck.
November 28, 2012 6:50 PM   Subscribe

I'm struggling with my dad moving on after my mother's death. Looking for advice or books to help me accept what's happening.

My mother died two years ago next month after 45+ years of marriage. My dad met a woman in August who does not live in our state and things are moving very quickly - quitting of jobs, moving in, potential marriage quickly. I am having a hard time with this. The logical side of me acknowledges that I want him to be happy and fulfilled, I don't want him to be alone just because I'm struggling with his newfound love, that my mom is gone and he's not being unfaithful, and that's it's his life to do with as he chooses.

But there is a part of me that feels like I'm losing my mom and my family unit as I knew it all over again and losing my dad to this new woman. I'm not upset that he's dating, I'm sad that he found my mom's replacement and that it's moving so fast. I know all this is exceedingly childish, but I can't shake it. And then there are the horror stories I am getting from left and right and even from my own extended family history of parents who remarry late in life creating financial, legal, and emotional havoc for all.

If you've gone through this and felt this way, how did you get past the sadness and just be happy your parent is happy? Are there books on this subject? I've tried sucking it up, but I'm not succeeding. I'm an only child, if that's relevant.
posted by cecic to Human Relations (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Folks your dad's age don't really have the time to take it slow and casual. The "shit or get off the pot" moment comes sooner and sooner the older you get, and I think your dad knows that. Is he acting out of character in this relationship? After 45 years of marriage, you can expect a man to know what makes two people work well together, and to identify when he's in that situation a lot faster than, say, a 25-year-old would.

Do you have reason to be suspicious here? There's "fast," there's "too fast" and there's "whoa whoa whoa, something is wrong" fast. Going strictly by logic-brain, which is going on here? Horror stories come from making bad decisions in the heart of grief. I can't tell you that two years is enough for your dad. No one here can. But it could be, and it could be that he's doing exactly what he needs to be doing right now. Has your dad spent his life making good decisions? Did he continue to make them right after your mom died? Does he have his life together? Ask yourself all these questions, and as you get the answers to them the situation should emotionally clarify at least a little. The same dad you always had is the same dad who is making this decision, and if he's that same dad, you're not losing him. If you feel like he's acting in a way, directly toward you, that feel like he's distancing himself, then you talk to him about it.

Also, did you go to therapy after your mom died? It took me about a year to actually get myself to do it after my mom died but holy shit was it totally necessary in retrospect. Especially if you're an only kid.
posted by griphus at 7:07 PM on November 28, 2012 [12 favorites]

I don't want to paint the male sex with a wide brush, but it seems fairly common in my experience for older widowers to take up with someone else much faster than widows do. My father (my mother died when I was a teenager, after my folks had been married for over 30 years) did so, and the fathers of some friends and relatives as well.

Some of it is certainly not having the time to take it slow, but I think some of it is also that men of that generation are often unfamiliar with how to live alone and manage alone, because both household management and emotional experience was pushed to the women in their lives.

For myself, my father married a friend of the family less than a year after my mother died. I had issues with this, to say the least, but some combination of time and seeing that she was good for him helped me get past it. Not over it, per se, but past it or through it to the other side. And, yeah, therapy.
posted by rmd1023 at 7:29 PM on November 28, 2012 [10 favorites]

I definitely agree with Griphus that older people move a lot more quickly in general. I think part of this is the time aspect as he talks about, but I think another part to is that older people know what they want and need in a relationship - there's a lot less guesswork for them. After being in relationships for a long time, there's often a real "no bullshit" vibe and also an understanding of what it takes to make a relationship work - and if a given relationship has it, or not.

Additionally, I think it can also be the case - especially for men of a certain generation - that after being in a couple for so long, they really, really struggle with being by themselves. My mother didn't die, but after my parents divorced after 27 years of marriage, my dad moved on very very quickly to my thirteen year old eye. But he was so depressed at being alone, he really wasn't functional.

I think some time with a counsellor is a great idea. Your feelings are very natural and hardly uncommon in this situation. Take the time to look after yourself, as well as your dad. And whatever you do, don't put his new relationship under any pressure, or give him a sense that he has to "choose" between you and his new partner. Any kind of move like that and you could both end up burning bridges you want to walk on sooner rather than later, and it will just make things more difficult down the track.

Remember also that people grieve and respond to grief very differently - your feelings are valid; your dad's feelings are valid. Best of luck, this kind of thing is always a little bumpy.
Best of luck,
posted by smoke at 7:29 PM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have you talked to him about it?

He probably doesn't think he's replacing your mom, even if he is contemplating sharing his life with someone else now. It will never be the same as his first partnership.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 8:06 PM on November 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

In my experience, many widows and widowers who had long happy marriages are eager to get hitched right quick, because they see marriage as the optimal life arrangement. Particularly widowers.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:12 PM on November 28, 2012 [7 favorites]

Agree with most people that older adults just tend to move a bit faster. If you want to look on the bright side, it's great that your father is moving on. Many older adults (perhaps older than your father, but still) decline fairly quickly after losing their long-term life partner. He knows what's best for him, and this is a good thing. Perhaps having someone to talk to about this would be helpful, but this is a win-win situation for your father. Good luck!
posted by two lights above the sea at 8:16 PM on November 28, 2012

Gnomeloaf and I are sisters. Our mom died in June 2010, just shy of our parents’ 42nd wedding anniversary. By September 2010, our dad had a girlfriend. He moved to her city this past June. (I still live in his old city.)

For what it’s worth: Gnomeloaf and I have reacted somewhat differently -- acceptance for me has been very slow in forthcoming. I refused to talk to him about her at all for quite a long time; it’s only in the last few months that I’ve become more or less okay with it. (We have theories about why the difference, that might interest a sociologist.)

Things we have found useful:

First and foremost: Getting to know his girlfriend, and realizing she is not Mom 2.0. That has helped to dismantle the “replacement” notion, which is obviously a big part of this. If you can, we suggest spending time with her outside of the Dad context. If she has her own family, them too. Our dad’s girlfriend and her family seem like very nice, un-evil people. That has really helped.

Having some awareness of the options. At the end of the day, it’s better for our father to have a girlfriend -- for many of the reasons other posters have given. As he gets closer and closer to truly old age, he will have companionship. This outcome, even though it’s tough for us as kids to absorb, is infinitely preferable to a lonely alternative.

Know that weary resignation can be an acceptable attitude. You don’t have to “suck it up” but you don’t have to think it’s the MOST FANTASTIC THING EVER. There will be days when you’re cooler with the whole idea than others. At this point, we’re pretty sure that’s normal. We agree with rmd1023: You don’t get over it so much as you get through it.

Communication with our dad. He occasionally needs to be reminded to keep things balanced, so to speak (see MOST FANTASTIC EVER, above) and we’ve prodded gently from time to time. It’s hard to hear about certain things, and when it gets to be too much, it should be okay to simply ask if you can change the subject.

If you haven’t had a conversation with your dad about all of this in general, it really might not be a bad idea. He needs to know that even though you wish him the best, as his kid there is a not insignificant degree of grief, and your loss is obviously not identical to his. Feel free to tell him you’ve talked to other adult children with dead mothers who say that sadness is just a fact.

If you’re married and have kids of your own, make a pact with your spouse that if necessary, you’ll tell your kids that the other one said it was ok to date after they died. We’re not sure how much that actually would have helped our situation, but it’s something we ponder.

Even though neither of us has pursued it re: this particular issue yet, we STRONGLY nth the recommendations for therapy. We have each other to bounce stuff off of, vent to, make jokes with. We know for a fact that you need this, too.

We hope this helps. Feel free to MeMail either of us.
posted by Lucinda at 8:18 PM on November 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

Your parents were together for 45 years. He didn't find a replacement for her. He found a new companion. My dad started seeing someone after my mom died, though he waited a longer. I think that frequently, men really can't be alone. Like they don't know how, which makes sense to me after several years. It still feels a little weird seeing him with someone else but he's definitely happy. It was also hard because my dad lost a lot of weight after my mom died. So I just felt better knowing he had someone who would go out to dinner with him. Things will never be the same but it gets easier and hurts less.
posted by kat518 at 8:20 PM on November 28, 2012

Like everyone else said: (a) older folks have to move FAST, (b) they're used to being married and need to hop back into that again, (c) men at that age probably need someone else to take care of them, and (d) good men go extremely fast on the dating market. So...yeah, this kind of thing is inevitable. Hell, my grandfather picked up a new girlfriend before his wife was even dead (he was always classy like that). Sounds like your dad waited longer than most, actually. There was a line on this week's Go On about how while Ryan wasn't ready for dating, he didn't want to not be married. I think that kind of logic must be going on here. Hell, I used to know a guy who I think eloped with a new woman maybe a couple of months after his wife's death.

Where things can get dicey is how your dad is behaving towards you. Is he still in your life, or do you feel like he is ditching you for the new woman? I hope the second scenario is not the case, but I've known some folks that happened to. I hope he isn't making you feel abandoned as a child, even if your family dynamic is changing. I know you feel hurt and kind of like backing off, but I think you probably need to make an effort to deal with the new woman so things don't go in a bad direction.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:35 PM on November 28, 2012

This is still part of your mourning process. I think you are doing fine, in that you are recognizing your dad's need and right to move on, and that you want him to be happy. You can still feel this and feel your loss and grief at the same time. This is a totally new loss for you. Not of your mom, but of your family unit as you have known it on top of your mom's passing. Death is never orderly, nor is the processing of emotions that come with it.

You are recognizing both your needs and your dad's needs. That's wonderful. I think time is what will help sort it all out.
posted by Vaike at 9:43 PM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Regarding the emotional side of things (I know, it's hard), one way to think about it is that your dad wants to remarry because he very likely loved what he had with your mom. If he did not, would he be interested in getting remarried again, after being married so many years? Indirectly, it's a testament to their relationship. He likely wants to recapture the good experience of being married again. So, you do not need to suck it up, I don't think. He's not looking to replace your mom such that you need to accept her being pushed to the side. He likely cherished what he had with your mom, and simply does not want to live with that void.
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:02 PM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

My mum's been gone for six years this December and even now, if my dad took up with someone, it would break my heart. I'm like you, I totally understand it from a logical point and I don't want him to be alone and unhappy but it would still feel like he was cheating somehow.

I think it's important for you to discuss these feelings openly with someone else close to you, allow yourself to be as selfish as you want when you discuss this with your person. Once you've been able to vent everything about how it makes *you* feel, then you can come to the table with your dad and discuss it in a rational manner.

You'll probably always have this lingering sadness about the situation but if you focus on the positives of the situation - that your dad gets to be happy again, gets the rare chance of finding love twice it might help you out. This is just another stage of grieving, when you realise the world is moving on without the person that shaped your whole life growing up.

Time, understanding and compassion will take you a very long way. But remember to give that to both your dad and yourself.
posted by liquorice at 10:08 PM on November 28, 2012

Similar family scenario - At first (before he remarried) it was like they were still "Mom and Dad", just Mom was symbolized by her empty chair. There was still space being held for her in his life and by extension in our family life. When he got serious about a new woman, it was like a further lose of "Mom and Dad". He loved, he misses her but he is also going on with his life, new friends, new wife, new house etc - he not holding still with that empty space next to him where (in my heart) my mother belongs. So I can empathize the feeling that you are losing your family again. And of course, you are feeling childish - this is about your parents and you are still their child even if you are an adult. The trick is to recognize that this is your stuff, not your father's issue and to keep your adult self in the room so you don't sabatoge your relationship with your father while you work out the ongoing loss of your mother.

Side note: The loss of a wife is different from the loss of a mother. Similarly, the loss of a child is different from the loss of a brother. Having lost both my mother and brother in just a few years, I was surprised to realize that for me, losing my mom created a much bigger hole in my heart while for my dad, it was the loss of his son that was harder.
posted by metahawk at 10:10 PM on November 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

My Mom and Dad have had this as a running joke since their 40s, they have even picked out each other's new spouses from their friends and it's a running joke with them as well. Part of it is just a long time joke amongst old friends but part of it is a generational thing. They all always expected to get married and stay married and stay friends with all the same people and generally exist in a community. My parents got married in their mid 20s and were considered kind of old. They consider married as the natural state and wouldn't want their spouse to ever be alone.

Also the alternative is one shows up at my door with a big fat suitcase and announces they've come to visit indefinitely and they won't be any bother.
posted by fshgrl at 12:18 AM on November 29, 2012

I wish I knew of some resources, because there must be a good way to bring up the practical concerns of financial and legal ramifications of this new relationship.

Long story short, my grandfather remarried to a family friend's grandmother after our grandmother passed away. After a few years, my grandfather's wife unfortunately was diagnosed with Alzheimers.

While she was alive, her children wanted to intervene and move her to another state to be near them. An inheritance for them was involved, or so I gathered after the fact when the whole sordid story came out. My grandfather was a great caretaker and was very involved in her care, and he did not want his wife of eleven years to be moved out of state. Then, they both died in an accident. In their understandable grief, her children immediately threatened my father and his siblings with legal action over the estate, even though no one on our side had indicated they were intending to steal any money or fail to honor the will(s) that were in place. The friendship between our two families was irrevocably damaged. I know that my family immediately signed over whatever was rightfully owed to the surviving children of my step-grandmother, probably with legal assistance but certainly ahead of schedule, just to show good faith.

So since this is not about just your dad and his new love, but also about blending of families and resulting emotional, financial, and legal interests - there must be some way to address this to your father without seeming untoward.

I know the moderator, Jessamyn, is actually really great with issues like this, and if she does not answer in this thread, you might contact her directly for her opinion.

It's not about horror stories or catastrophizing. It's not about trusting your dad or his new love, even. Situations like this bring up concerns it should be easier to talk about than it is.

My one thought is that since you live in a different state, you might use my family's experience to riff on and open up a dialogue with your father.

I do know that there was some sort of elderly "power of attorney" scam that my grandfather fell for during my step-grandmother's illness that had the family on both sides concerned. Specifically, had my father known his father had been conned into signing over any rights to a third party, my dad would have been incensed. It seems that while my grandfather was alive, he realized this mistake, and he hid this from his children. He was coping alone, and while he was a great caretaker, he effed up a bit on the financial side. That was all about pride on his part. Trust me.

I really hope someone pops in here to give you a script, talking points, or resources to open this conversation with your father.

Or maybe I've just done that?

Best of luck.
posted by jbenben at 12:58 AM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oops double!
posted by fshgrl at 1:54 AM on November 29, 2012

I have some experience relevant to this. My mom passed away in 2008 and about two years later my dad started dating someone. It was a little hard to accept at first, but I made an effort in short order to be happy for him. Some of my siblings were not as gracious, I'm told.

My dad passed away in 2011. We talked a lot about his happiness with his girlfriend and looking back it gave me a unique insight into my father as an approachable and sensitive person. I wish we would have had more time, but I'm so glad that I was emotionally available to him. It is a treasure to me now.

Naturally, this was all helped by it being a mature and sensible relationship. No one was endangering their well being or financial future. In fact, we spoke candidly about how marriage was impractical because it would have taken her off of her ex-husbands (she was a widow) social security benefits and one must be married for 10 years to get survivor benefits. If your dad is doing something that could be financially imprudent you should consider speaking up, but I share my experience as encouragement that you may find a new and deeper connection to your dad through his new relationship.
posted by dgran at 6:38 AM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Consider attending a grief support group (hospices and hospitals often sponsor them) to talk about your feelings.
posted by Carol Anne at 6:40 AM on November 29, 2012

Two years is really not a 'short while' Assuming your dad is in his late 60's or 70's he doesn't have a ton of two year stretches left.

You're mom would likely want him to be happy. Not noble and lonely.
posted by French Fry at 8:36 AM on November 29, 2012

I've seen this from a slightly different perspective: my mother married a widower when I was a young teenager. Her new husband had older, grown children who had been out of their house for years, some over a decade. His late wife had died within a year or two (I can't recall exactly), and when she knew she was dying she told him to please find a companion when he was ready. She knew he wouldn't be happy alone and she genuinely wanted him to be happy. Enter my mother, later on. My now-stepdad made my mother extremely happy and vice versa right from the start, which - sadly, but realistically - was hard on all the kids involved, but harder on his children (my father is still alive, so the dynamics involved were different) - they saw my mother as their own mother's replacement, I'm sure, despite their mother's clear insistence that their father remarry. The trouble is that they treated her as if she was an imposition - there was resentment, some cold-shouldering, and no genuine acceptance of their relationship for years, with the exception of the oldest child, who was gracious. His reaction was kind - flowers upon their engagement, and a genuine "welcome to our family." I'm positive it was hard for him to see his father moving on, but he made the effort and, over the years, that gesture made the situation so much smoother for everyone involved. With the other children, on the other hand, the situation was difficult, and remained so for a long time. My mother (and I, on another note) still recalls those years as very hard, and I'm sure it was exponentially moreso for my stepdad.

We're now about 15 years from that point and everything is essentially as fine as it'll ever be. It's also clear to anyone with eyes that my mom and my stepdad were meant to be together, which is heartening, but something that can take time for people to genuinely see.

I share this anecdote for this reason: these things are hard, for all involved, but I suspect especially for the parent who is moving on, as they have to deal with their own feelings of guilt for their late partner, their children, etc. I'm not suggesting that it's an easy for the children, but when there's a good, loving relationship involved, this situation does become easier over time to accept, and it seems to me that, even if your heart isn't wholly in it at the start, making some gesture of acceptance can make everyone more comfortable and ease future interactions immeasurably.

Also, let me nth everyone who has said your father hasn't replaced your mother. My stepdad's late wife is still frequently talked about, her pictures are on their walls throughout the house - she's very much alive in my stepdad's and his children's memories, and those they have shared with my mother and myself. My mother is another chapter in my stepdad's life, not a rewriting of it.

Best of luck to you.
posted by AthenaPolias at 11:55 AM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

I had the same situation happen to me - my father met someone after 18 months/2 years - and I had the same competing thoughts that you are having.

What helped somewhat was to conjure up real sympathy for a man who had endured a great deal in the lead up and recovery from my mother's death. We all crave holding - spiritually and physically - and perhaps those who have suffered these terrible losses most of all. I didn't get along with my father's choice of new partner as she was not a great addition to the family, even though she was a great addition to my father's life. I soothed myself by learning to see that my father 'deserved' to have some happiness with someone new after what he had been through.

What also happened to me in terms of grief is that in the second marriage situation my father became a different person - a kinder, looser, less judgmental and rigid person. This was painful at times as I grieved that he had not been so accommodating and loving to my mother. There is a lot of emotional stirring in witnessing these changes, inevitable as they are. Without my mother, he became someone I had to, in a way, re-learn.

My advice is not to shout down your feelings. Everything you wrote rings very true for me, and I am 16 years out from my mother's death. Don't feel like you have to be some amazingly together person on this. It's okay to wobble and experience a swelling of your grief responses as it is another aspect of the letting go of your mother.

I guess the older I got and the more that time passed I grew to be able to hold two things in my mind together - my dad as his own person with a life he wants to live, having love, having his history with my mother and his deep loss, and my own grief that is now more personal, less family-centred sharing. Our feelings can be our memorial even as our lives fill with other attachments. I don't doubt that my dad still grieves for his wife even if his life doesn't look like the memorial it did before he met someone new.

Also: You can decide how quickly you want to get to know this new partner. For me it was sporadic contact usually mediated through my father. She was cool with that as she had life experiences and compassion for what us 'kids' had been through and empathy with what we would be going through in accepting her into our lives. That's the advantage of these later in life relationships.

I also think that the older I get, the more I think about how fast time flies, how little the time is we have here to find happiness. And later in life partners have lived out a whole lot of experiences that create overlays of connection that younger people don't have yet, broadly speaking.
posted by honey-barbara at 5:53 AM on November 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

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