Ask a Widow: Legacy (Part 1)

DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley holds plaque with her children

I get a number of private messages on my blog, and I try and respond when I can. Usually, there is little I can offer to grieving people except to say, “It’s terrible. Hang in there.” But every once in a while, I get a letter that really makes me think. That happened to me last week, and the reader graciously allowed me to address it publicly. Here’s an excerpt of that note, edited for privacy:

My husband died two years ago. He was one of those people who was well known by many. We had hundreds of people attend his funeral and to this day, he is loved and celebrated by many. I am honored by this, but at the same time, it is making it extremely difficult for me to move forward. I usually post tributes on special milestone dates and I take great care into crafting a message that is all about him, but also shows that my children and I continue our lives.

I feel that men that I am dating feel uncomfortable with my late husband’s legacy and memory and I can’t say that I blame them. I have been judged for wanting a relationship again when those around me suggest I should just concentrate on raising my children. I have been told that nobody will ever be as great as my late husband and that he was one in a million. I know that he was special, but it doesn’t mean that other men cannot be special in their own way. I feel defeated, watched and awful about even wanting to fall in love again. How can a new partner navigate the public legacy of the late spouse?

Ugh. I read that message and my heart sunk because damn I know that feeling. Of course it’s wonderful when your community remembers your late partner so fondly. It’s great for your kids and it’s great for you, too. I am still really touched when someone sends me a message with a story about how Shawn showed kindness or intelligence or thoughtfulness. I love that there is a fellowship named after him at his former workplace. His legacy means a lot to me and to the kids.

But Shawn was a man, not a saint. He was good to people around him and he loved his family and all the things that really matter. But he wasn’t perfect, and that statement, “you’ll never find anyone quite like him,” grated on me after he died. I actually wrote a blog post about his flaws after listening to someone go on and on about how perfect Shawn was. (I entitled it “My Flawed Husband.“) It bugged me when people would focus on his perfection for a number of reasons. First, because he wasn’t perfect, which made me feel like I was undeserving of him even when he was alive. And second, because those words, “he’s one in a million” are super depressing to a widow facing potentially decades more on this earth. I always wanted to scream at these people, “so you’re saying I am destined to be alone forever, huh?”

That’s not what others are trying to imply, I know. But trust me, it’s how those words often fall – especially if you’re starting to date again. Even if no one actively says, “you’ll never find someone like your late partner,” a widow often feels that way when he or she hears, “he was the kind of partner you wait your whole life to meet,” or “he lit up a room like no one else ever could, and I’ll never have another friend like him.” We know you don’t mean to make us feel judged. We do.

And yet. That’s what it feels like.

Complicating all of this is the fact that new widows often feel like they are in a fishbowl, watched by their entire community. I remember going to my kids’ elementary school after Shawn died and realizing that all of the sudden, everyone knew me. Of course they did! I was the woman with the dead husband. They were all just trying to be kind, but again, it added to the feeling that everyone was watching me. And sometimes – even if no one is actually trying to do this – it can feel like everyone is judging you.

Once you decide to start dating, it makes things even more complicated. Both for you and for your community.

I’m not even talking about the complications that might arise with a new partner. (Yes, this reader asked about how a new partner can navigate a dead partner’s legacy, and that’s an important question I’ll get to in Part 2 of this post.) I’m talking about how difficult it can be to navigate dating when certain factors are present, like:

  1. You loved your partner
  2. Your partner was a good/charismatic/interesting/fun person
  3. You have children (especially if they are young)
  4. You are a part of a community who loved your partner and continues to love your family
  5. You live in puritanical America (kidding! sort of.)

There are so many expectations of how a widow should behave. I don’t mean that anyone says them out loud. But like anything, we get these signals from movies and schooling and society and advertisements. No one blatantly said to me, “you should not ever date again because that would dishonor your late husband.” That would have been crazy. They just said other things that made me feel that way like, “if my spouse died, I’d never date again.” Or they didn’t say anything at all. Or they actually said encouraging things or even the “right” things and OMG I STILL FELT BAD ABOUT DATING.

I’m not sure why this is. Why do we feel so judged even by people who aren’t judging us? Yes, there are people out there who are obnoxious, but most of the judgement I felt came from my own head. I had to actively tell myself that it was okay for me to want someone else in my life. I had to get my widow friends to reinforce it.

And in the end, I had to get my non-widow friends to reinforce it too. Some of them did it naturally. But for others, I had to actually say, “I feel really vulnerable out there dating. I need to know that you support me, even if things aren’t going well. I need you to ask me about my dates and I need you to encourage me when I’m down. I need you to stop saying that I’ll never find anyone like Shawn. I need you to remind me that no matter what happens, I am worthy of finding someone new.”

Wanting to fall in love again is not a personality flaw. It is a basic human desire, and it is why people do it over and over again, even after heartbreak and loss.

You deserve the chance to try again, without judgement from your community or from yourself.

You deserve it. You deserve it. You deserve it.

*Readers: can you share any tips or thoughts that I may have forgotten to help this widow with her question? She’s looking for all the ideas she can get! You can leave those ideas in the comments section.

**This column is merely my point of view and is for informational purposes only. I am not a therapist or medical professional, and thus my thoughts should not be a substitute for advice from these professionals. Please get immediate help if you feel like harming yourself. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.

4 Replies to “Ask a Widow: Legacy (Part 1)”

  1. Everything Marjorie said! I’m 45, 3 1/2 years a widow, I’ve felt ready to date again for a long tine but only in the last couple of months will even my closest friends suggest I look on a dating app. No one on my family ever asks if I’ll date again. It hurts because I’m already questioning whether I will feel truly happy again or if my purpose is just to keep raising our kids and earn the income for that. I have learned to back myself, hold the household together and generally survive, but the prospect of finding someone is daunting enough without the silence of those around me which I interpret as both discouragement or worse, they simply never stop to consider the endless stretch of days alone I endure. We are worthy, in fact we’d make extraordinary partners because we know who we are and what’s important, and how to be grateful with less. Those saying by either words or silence they wouldn’t re-partner have no idea what they would do themselves- how could they and I hope they never have to find out! Our widowhood has taught us to confront our truth- do what you think is right for you and this is what will be right for your family and because you’ll be happy then so will they be – then only surround yourself with those who support your decisions and rejoice for you! Good luck.

    1. I think you hit on a really important point about silence here. I’d actually love to write a blog post about it! I think that others often feel that their silence is respectful (like they wouldn’t want to say something you might balk at about dating) but what it can FEEL like is disapproval. What’s the right thing to do as a friend? It’s a great question, and one I only partially answered in this post. I may take another shot at it in another post someday!

      And yes to surrounding yourself with people who rejoice for you!

  2. Oh my gosh, your words came straight from my mind:
    “First, because he wasn’t perfect, which made me feel like I was undeserving of him even when he was alive. And second, because those words, “he’s one in a million” are super depressing to a widow facing potentially decades more on this earth. I always wanted to scream at these people, “so you’re saying I am destined to be alone forever, huh?”

    My husband died suddenly in May 2019 at a parent volunteer meeting at our kids’ school. He was a well-loved 3rd grade teacher and I teach at the same school. The whole community of 2 school districts knows my story and he gets saint-like status. I could not agree more about feeling like I must not have deserved him.

    Thank you for making me feel less crazy. I hope your teaching and zooming are going well!

    1. Oh, that’s so hard. But here’s the thing: you DID deserve him and someday if you want someone else, you deserve that as well. And I’m not saying it’s going to be easy to try to date but….I also think it’s something we all should have access to, without the judgement of the people around us. Hang in there. It’s TOUGH navigating everything.

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