Timeframe for grieving?
February 7, 2007 1:09 PM   Subscribe

Grieffilter: Is he still grieving his wife, even though it's been so long? Need advice on my relationship with a widower...

I need advice on my relationship with a widowed man. A little background, and a longish post…

I have been seeing an older man for five months. He was married for 25 years before his wife passed away from a terminal illness. She passed away 15 years ago, on Christmas. According to others who knew both of them, she was the love of his life. He dealt with the loss by throwing himself into his work (he is a scientist). He worked all day, almost every day, by his own account. He did this for about 12 years until his sister died of cancer. He told me that shortly after his sister’s death, he had an epiphany of sorts, and decided that he needed to live life again. That was when he started to date again.

I know that he was in a serious relationship as recently as last year. It was a distance relationship, of sorts (not a long distance, but a couple hours drive). He went to visit her with the intention of proposing, and instead found out that she had been seeing someone else. He did not tell me about this relationship, rather, I found out through a mutual acquaintance. It was the first relationship he had been in since his wife's passing.

He approached me, and we hit it off. We have a lot in common and have a great time together. However, there are a few things that bother me, and since I don’t have any experience with this, I seek help from MeFi.

I have never been married, so I don’t know what it is like to lose a spouse (or parent even). I don’t know how long men grieve, or if the grief process is lifelong. He will frequently mention her in conversation, and I don’t know if I should take this as an indication that he really isn’t ready to date (and may never be). His house hasn’t changed since they moved into it a couple of years before she became ill. Her clothes and personal possessions aren’t there. She had her friends come in and help her pack things up and send them away while he was at work, so that he wouldn’t have to deal with it after she was gone. But there are little things around his house, and most of the décor is her work. It doesn’t bother me, but do most people hang on to things like that, even after so many years? Do they talk about them frequently and still refer to the deceased as ‘my wife’ or ‘my husband’? I just want to understand what is normal. How will I know if I am involved with someone who isn’t ready or willing (or whatever) to move on with their life? (I tried to think of the best way to phrase that, and I don’t think that I succeeded. I am not trying to be insensitive, and I hope that those reading this understand what I am trying to say.)

I guess I have general relationship questions as well, as I don’t have so much experience in that arena, either. He used to spend as much time with me as possible (new relationship stuff, I guess?) Now he is working on publishing a book, so he wants to work on his book more, and tells me that he will spend time with me later. I understand that he has publishing deadlines and such, and I might be reading too much into it. He has said (when we have a disagreement usually) that he needs to decide what he wants, as far as a relationship or whatever. He said that he never argued with his wife, and if there is any confrontation between us at all, he does the hermit crab thing and retreats into his shell. I do know that we are exclusive. But he is not the best communicator. He shows his affection in non-verbal ways, I guess. He buys me little gifts whenever he has to travel, and likes to take me shopping and out to nice restaurants, and he usually cooks dinner for me. Things like that.

Earlier in the relationship, he was the one who told me that he loved me, and he seemed very excited about the relationship. I have a condition that manifests itself in rage episodes, which are usually not directed at the person present. After one of these rages (which do not happen very often any more-I work very hard to keep things under control as much as possible), I usually don’t remember what I was angry about, or even what I said. It used to be much worse, I would throw things. He is aware of my condition, but was still surprised the first time he witnessed a rage episode. We talked about it after that, and he seemed to understand better, but since then, he does not tell me that he loves me, and seems much more reserved about things (understandably, I guess).

I guess I don’t know how to take this. To me, if you really love someone, it wouldn’t change overnight (with the exception of really extreme circumstances maybe). Do I take his hesitation as a sign that he’s “just not that into me”? Or is five months the point where one gets kind of comfortable in the relationship, and gets a little lazy? There are times when I feel like I am a trophy or plaything, and I don’t know if that is a ‘standard female reaction’, or if I could be having valid feelings. Is it possible that by burying himself in his work, he never really grieved the loss of his wife? Could he still doing this by working endlessly, trying to avoid facing his feelings? How does one know if someone is still grieving, or just remembering someone fondly? I tried asking him about it once, and he answered my questions, but said that he would not like to talk about it anymore (too painful). Is there anything I can do to help him? Is it hopeless, and should I just give up, because he isn’t over her and never will be? Is dating more difficult, and therefore moves at a slower pace, after the loss of a spouse? I am looking for insight into this sort of situation, or anything remotely similar.

FWIW, I am a paid member of MeFi, but I posted this anonymously for certain reasons. I do have an email if anyone has specific questions or private advice to offer. Any help that can be provided would be greatly appreciated. Email me at griefhelpplease@hotmail.com. Thank you.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Tons to discuss here...

I lost a spouse after 24 years... major grief subsided within two years to manageable levels, with some key exceptions in my case. We met when I was 11, she 13... Married when 20/21, respectively. I knew no adulthood without her. I spent quite a while living the life I would have lived in my 20's, were I not a boring old married man at that point.... excessive drinking, self-medication. Depression was a factor, made no easier by the details of her demise, which I won't discuss here. I will say she had terminal cancer.

WHile her death can still impact me even 9 years later, I have to admit that I have come to terms with it and have met many, many people who have lost spouses, and to varying degrees, they seem to recover and move on.

I remarried a wonderful woman 20 years my junior. Things are as normal as they get in life. Hopefully, I'll get to die first this time.... it was very difficult.

We have tons of stuff from my 'prior' life, but I've concentrated on building a new one with my lovely bride, and she is not threatened by my persistent connection to my past. All loves come with one, you know?

Your rage episodes sound scary, anon. His hermit behavior does, too. His rejection by the intermediate woman must also figure into his calculus.

Good luck. Email me (profile) for additional specifics.
posted by FauxScot at 1:27 PM on February 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

My guess is that your hunch is right - that since he never really grieved the loss of his wife, he isn't ready to move on. Even though in reality time it's been longer, in psychological time I would think of him as someone who, for all intents and purposes, lost his wife recently.

Entering into a new relationship implies that someone is moving on. He may have been both intoxicated and frightened by that possibility. Your rage incident might have scared him away, but my guess is that he's very sensitive to rejection and that he would have been scared away at some point regardless.

Sorry to sound like Dear Abby here, but it sounds like he's having a fairly complicated bereavement process and that he could use some professional help.
posted by jasper411 at 1:55 PM on February 7, 2007

A few points I'd like to make: I come from a family of scientists, and a lot of his behavior sounds like typical scientist "emotional stuntedness": he doesn't talk about his feelings much, he doesn't do the whole "introspection" thing, he seems uncomfortable in situations that are highly charged, such as when his S.O. is having an anxiety attack or is crying or is having a "rage" attack, and above all he dislikes confrontation (this BTW is like MY S.O., who's also a scientist).

However, this doesn't mean he can't be hurt by people he loves. It's important to show that you cherish him, too, and not just with words. If he wants space, you should give him space while doing thoughtful things for him, like stopping by for 5 minutes with a cup of coffee/tea or taping his favorite show that he's missing.

I've been dating my Scientist Dude (who's not really an introvert per se - he's dynamic and outgoing) for almost 5 years now, so you can email me if you have any more questions.
posted by muddgirl at 1:58 PM on February 7, 2007 [3 favorites]

He will frequently mention her in conversation, and I don’t know if I should take this as an indication that he really isn’t ready to date

No, you should take this as an indication that they were married for twenty-five years. It would be pretty odd, and a sign of alarming dissociation (or whatever the term is), if he didn't mention her. My wife and I each mention our first spouses fairly often, and neither marriage lasted nearly that long. Try to think of his wife as a good friend rather than some kind of zombie rival; you'll have a better chance of coming to terms with it. But:

I have a condition that manifests itself in rage episodes... He is aware of my condition, but was still surprised the first time he witnessed a rage episode

Well, yeah! You seem a little surprised by his reaction, but (as others have said) it's perfectly normal to be upset when someone gets enraged, and if I were him I'd be pretty worried about what might come of it. People often become more violent when a relationship is established and they start thinking of the other person as "theirs"; even though you're sure you're not like this and he has nothing to worry about, he doesn't know this, and it will take time to convince him. The first step is to make sure you're not giving off signals that he should just get over it and accept you the way you are. Acknowledge that your rages are scary, promise to do your best to make sure he never has to witness them, and above all be patient. Good luck, and my e-mail is in my profile if you want to discuss anything.
posted by languagehat at 2:20 PM on February 7, 2007

Or is five months the point where one gets kind of comfortable in the relationship, and gets a little lazy?

On the contrary, five or six months is where everyone involved in the relationship is beginning to confront whether this is something they see stretchng into long term.

Because of the issues of everyone involved, it sounds like this is going to be a two-steps-forward, one-step-back kind of thing. Your acute self-awareness will hopefully pick up some of the slack on his side, but as you are noticing it also makes you into seem like an intimidating emotional character.

As for his grief issues, it's taken him a long time to get this far, the other changes will come along in due course. For example, as for his-- THEIR-- house, if you become committed enough it will probably even begin to seem silly to him how much of her that place contains.

If you are determined to keep this ball rolling, the big breakthroughs you are craving may come more slowly than you hoped, possibly to the point of not seeming big at all. Give it your best shot, and if you reach your wits' end, know that you did the best you could witha tough case. What else is there?
posted by hermitosis at 2:20 PM on February 7, 2007

The way couples love one another after a few months of dating is very different from they way they love one another years later. I suspect your scientist enjoyed your company and the respite from his difficult life, at first, but was later put off by the "rage" episode you describe and, I suspect, your attempts thereafter to seek reassurance. He may be having difficulty telling you that it's not working out for him, hence the distance and excuses. I don't think it has anything to do with the fact that he's a scientist.

My point is, despite all of our tendencies to think we're really in love early in a relationship, it's much easier then for one of the partners to have second thoughts upon witnessing irrational behavior or other revelations.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 2:26 PM on February 7, 2007

My *guess* is that the relationship has lost that luster for him. He probably still likes you, but you're not as important to him anymore. He probably feels guilty about this and doesn't know exactly what to do.
I could be wrong, but the specifics that jumped out at me were him wanting more space (to publish his book), and the feeling you were getting of being a "trophy". You mentioned that after his sister died that he wanted to live life, but now his focus on publishing his book? As for the feeling of being a plaything or trophy, I would definitely evaluate those feelings. Some guys (well people in general, but not all, and maybe not him) like having someone there when they want/need them, but are not terribly interested in being there for the other person.
posted by forforf at 2:46 PM on February 7, 2007

He is aware of my condition, but was still surprised the first time he witnessed a rage episode. We talked about it after that, and he seemed to understand better, but since then, he does not tell me that he loves me, and seems much more reserved about things (understandably, I guess).

Reading your entire post, I could not get past this part. You mention it almost in passing, as if it were as notable as a periodic tendency to have a down mood. Has it occurred to you that witnessing his SO come completely unglued may have given him tremendous reservations about commitment?

He said that he never argued with his wife, and if there is any confrontation between us at all, he does the hermit crab thing and retreats into his shell.

I think you have answered your own question, at least in part.
posted by docpops at 3:02 PM on February 7, 2007

I'm sure there are a lot of bachelors who haven't changed their home decor since the early '90's.

Depending on what you mean by "rage episode," I can imagine that many people would be cautious about moving forward after witnessing one.
posted by textilephile at 3:34 PM on February 7, 2007

Just with regards to the grieving thing ...

My mom died 17 years ago. My dad is very happily remarried for almost 15 years, and we both love my stepmom & stepfamily. However, that doesn't change that he was married to my mom for almost 20 years. And I can tell you that he still thinks about her, mentions her occasionally, and gets teary if we talk about her.

Would you want to date/marry/be with someone who could forget someone they spent 20+ years with so easily? This isn't a divorce or a breakup. This wasn't a separation by choice.

And I can tell you from personal experience that grieving can be a lifelong process. People who seem to quickly get over losing someone are often burying deeper confusion or feelings. Or they may be repressing it only to have to deal with it later on in life.

There is absolutely no "right" or "wrong" way or amount of time to grieve. Estimated timeframes for mourning & the 5 steps of grief are total bullshit and more and more mental health professionals are starting to learn this.

I don't think it's reasonable to expect someone to completely "get over" losing their partner for such a large chunk of their life.

But, I do think it is reasonable to expect him to tell you he loves you regularly if he did it before, to pay attention to you, to act romantically towards you, and to try & be understanding of your issues. If he won't, can't or doesn't want to do those things, then I think it's possible that the real issue is that you just deserve better.
posted by tastybrains at 8:23 PM on February 7, 2007

I lost my first partner after 5 years. It took longer than that to really be past the grief. But my life didn't stop for the grieving, either. (he died unexpectedly, from heart disease).

Only now can I consider whether I really need to keep some things I've kept, and he died at the end of 1988.

When your SO dies, they are preserved in perfection. The love doesn't vanish with their life. This is totally different from a break up.
posted by Goofyy at 2:47 AM on February 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

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