Ask a Widow: Legacy (Part 2)

Family of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley on beach

In my last blog post, I replied to a message from a reader about dating, but I was so wrapped up in addressing her feelings of frustration that I never answered her ending question, which was about navigating a new relationship as a widow. So I’ll do that today. Before I do, here’s the same excerpt of that note, edited for privacy:

My husband died two years ago. He was one of those people who were 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 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?

I’d like to start by saying that dating as a widow is tricky. I mean, do you put that you’re a widow in your online dating profile? Do you tell your date that you’re a widow right away, if he or she doesn’t already know? Do you talk about your dead partner with the person you’ve been dating for a month, or is that too soon?

I don’t have any real answers to these questions. I’ve actually tried out a number of different tactics, including being very upfront about my widowhood and also refusing to talk at all about my late husband. Sometimes, it made a difference about whether or not I went on a first or even a second date.

But usually it didn’t matter at all. Because in the end, the men I dated either could handle my widowhood or they couldn’t. Some men were turned off by my status, and that’s just a fact. But whatever. Time saved for both of us, right?

Of course, I didn’t usually tell my entire life story on a first date. There was an editing process I used to slowly roll out my back story. But when it all eventually came out and a man still wanted to go out with me, I knew he was (at least somewhat) comfortable with navigating hard shit. Which is kinda a prerequisite for dating a young widow.

So to answer the reader’s question, I’ll start by saying this: Simply getting to a 3rd or 4th date with someone else usually means he or she can handle dating someone with a complicated life story. If your new love interest hasn’t run away at that point and will engage with you about your history, then that person has passed part 1 of the test. Great. But what about the next part of the question: the part about navigating your late partner’s legacy?

That is tougher. But again, I think it’s all about slowly opening your full self up to someone else. Maybe it takes a few weeks or months, but you have to draw some boundaries around what’s important to you and see if the other person can handle it. To give an example, if your late husband’s birthday is coming up, you may want to tell the person you are dating something like this:

Tomorrow would be my late husband’s birthday and I wanted to let you know that I usually do a social media post about him. I’m sure many people will comment on it, and I don’t want you to be worried that I’m still in love with him. I’m not. Rather, I want to honor him in this public way so I can remember him with my friends. I also will likely spend the day by myself, because it helps me gather my thoughts. I hope you’ll understand that this is just something I need to do, and it’s not a reflection of you or our budding relationship.

If the person you are dating says, “well, I’m not comfortable with that,” then I have one piece of advice: run away.

I’m actually serious. That request above is not crazy.

But what I think the reader was originally asking was about the more emotionally complicated situations – the ones where you are dating someone who wants to do all the right things, but is still uncomfortable when he or she is hit with the reality of dating a widow.

So what do you do if you find yourself dating someone who has passed the initial tests and shown he or she can be with a widow, but who is still not 100% comfortable always talking about your late partner with you?

You take it one day at a time, telling your story bit by bit. And also – and this is important – you have to tell the person that you are dating that it’s important for you to continue to honor your late partner. You may be willing to do fewer social media posts, but your new love interest also has to be okay with whatever it is that you actually do want to post/write/discuss about your late partner. You’re going to have to lay out those parameters, eventually, and you may have to bend a little to what makes your new partner feel more comfortable. There may be some hurt feelings on both sides, but the communication is essential. And it has to be ongoing.

Chris and I still have conversations about how to navigate Shawn’s legacy. We want to keep his memory alive for the kids, and I want to tell stories about Shawn for me, too. And sometimes I can unintentionally overdo it. It’s probably going to be something we talk about every once in a while for years, even though it feels like we’re in a good place right now.

But that seems like the best policy. Keep talking. Be willing to compromise on issues that aren’t that important. Keep your late partner’s memory alive in the way that best honors who he or she was, both for you and for your children. Be open to your new partner’s emotions, even if they are hard to hear. Don’t be afraid to remind to your new partner about your feelings for him or her. But don’t compromise on keeping your late partner’s memory and legacy alive in the way that you feel best honors him.

Above all else, see step #1: Keep talking to your new partner. If that stops, it seems to me that you have your answer about whether or not this new relationship is a good fit.

*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.

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