Q: My second husband was very ill the three years before he passed. I took care of him in our home the entire time. Being in my late 60s, I did not think I would ever meet someone else, but surprisingly, I did, six months to the day of his passing at the grocery store. We hit it off and have been dating for five months. His wife also passed. My children, who are adults and do not live with me, take it very personally that I'm seeing someone new, saying it's too soon. I understand their point of view, but I'm 67 years old and grateful I have this chance. Life is so short. What's good ex-etiquette?
A: With the population aging I often get questions about how to handle new relationships when a spouse has died — and there are some things that both sides must understand in order to support each other.
First, the grief you both feel is certainly real, but different. Although your children's father has died, your life's companion is no longer at your side. Dad is often a child's rock and that doesn't necessarily change as a child gets older. However, a child chooses to move out and begin a life of their own. Your experience was the exact opposite.
Children, grandchildren and other extended family are often removed from the everyday responsibilities of taking care of a terminally ill loved one, as well. They may not understand how a husband/wife relationship changes when one becomes that ill. Roles are often reversed. Someone who was very sharp and strong may become unable to keep themselves clean or think clearly. Intimacy is reduced or may stop altogether, and the healthy partner often starts the mourning process with the diagnosis and continues to mourn throughout the illness. That's why it's not uncommon that people find themselves moving on quickly once their loved one has died. They mourned their partner's passing throughout the illness.
But their children don't deal with their grief in that manner. Their grieving process often starts with the passing, so to them, you are moving on months after their father died. It may seem out of character and selfish and they probably fear that your excitement about this new man will overshadow your love for their dad. So they hold on even tighter. Then there's the inheritance question. That concern is another column for another day.
I hope my explanation offers a little insight to how both sides may be feeling. Empathy is a great healer (Good Ex-Etiquette for Parents Rule 7) and putting yourselves in each other's shoes will help you to approach each other with understanding and compassion. Be on the lookout, however. Although you may have openly faced the inevitability of your husband's death, the probability of fully dealing with the grief associated with it is highly improbable. You feel lighter now, but everyone, your children, you, even your new partner, needs to recognize that there's an ebb and flow to grief. Everyone is hurting. Try not to pass judgment. That's good ex-etiquette.
Jann Blackstone is the author of "Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation," and the founder of Bonus Families, bonusfamilies.com.