Sometimes, I get questions from readers that really made me think. But there’s one that I got a few weeks ago that made both Chris and I think. Here’s what the email said (details have been changed, though I got permission from the writer to reprint his correspondence with me):
My name is Michael and I’m the hopeful fiance to a widow. By way of some background, my love – Sarah – lost her husband Robert in 2019. She told me your blog helped her immensely so I’m writing to you.
We started dating about a year after her husband died and have progressed to where we are today, living together and discussing marriage. Neither of us had wanted marriage but as we’ve grown together, we both realize we want this again (I was once married and am now divorced). All seems great right? Well, except for one thing and this is where I’m hoping you can help.
We live in Sarah’s house that she shared with her husband. There are pictures of him around the house, which is totally fine. However, there are pictures of him and Sarah on their wedding day, on vacation together, etc around the bedroom. Which is now our bedroom. As we’ve discussed getting engaged/married I told her that if we’re going to make that commitment, I’d be more comfortable if the bedroom pictures weren’t there. She listened but seemed uncomfortable with it. Is this unreasonable? Hoping you can give me some perspective.
Wow. This email made me pause and think for a long while. I wasn’t really sure what the right answer was. Ultimately, I shared it with Chris, since this situation shares some similarities with an issue that we dealt with. My sharing began a weeks-long discussion between us about how to think about issues like this. What does it mean to keep up photos of a late partner when a new partner is entering into your life? And what does it mean for that new person, too? So today, here’s a bit of my discussion with Chris as we tried to reply to the “hopeful fiance to a widow”:
Thinking back to the beginning of our relationship, even though it was only a couple of years ago, things feel like a fuzzy whirlwind. If I squint my memory a bit, I can make out the big feelings: excitement, curiosity, love.
And, while there wasn’t really much conflict or tension to speak of at the beginning of our relationship (and still, actually), I have a pretty clear recollection of the conversation that we had around the pictures of Shawn in our house.
The first time I visited the house (a surprise), we both polled the kids to see how they felt about me staying at the house. They were excited to have me there, but thought it might be best if I stayed in the basement. It wasn’t until I was unpacking my bags on the first night that I realized that the room where I was staying seemed to also be where the photos of Shawn lived. I took note, swallowed back some kind of feeling about it, and refocused on my excitement about being with Marjorie. That basement room became my home for the next month or so. It’s also where Marjorie would sneak down every night every night after putting the kids to bed, slinking back upstairs, often in the wee hours of the morning.
At some point, maybe a month in, I said something to Marjorie about how it made me feel a little weird to be sleeping in a room surrounded by photos of Shawn & Marjorie’s wedding day, Shawn and Marjorie staring lovingly into each others eyes on a beach, a painting representing Shawn and Marjorie’s love, a photo of them dancing passionately at a friends wedding.
I remember being really conflicted about if I should say something. I certainly didn’t want Marjorie to think that I was disrespecting the memory of her late husband, or that I felt some sort of strange competition with Shawn – because I truly didn’t. It did, however, feel weird to be occupying a space that was so saturated with the memory of someone else. I’m not sure exactly how the conversation went. I think that I expressed some reservations about all the romantic photos, but I also told her that I thought it was super important to have pictures of Shawn up – particularly for the kids. I also told her that I would follow her lead with whatever felt comfortable, even if that meant changing nothing. I wasn’t really asking her anything – just sharing a feeling – and trying to do it in the most respectful way I knew how.
I remember this conversation – not the specifics, but the way that it made me feel. Yes, in my head, I agreed that I shouldn’t have up so many romantic photos in the same place where Chris was sleeping. It made sense to me, intellectually. Plus, he wasn’t asking me to take down family photos or other memories of Shawn.
And yet, the whole discussion made me feel stressed. While I agreed intellectually with Chris, I had all sorts of mixed emotions about taking down photos of Shawn and I on our wedding day, for example. What did it mean that I was moving forward in a way that specifically meant I would take down those photos? Was Chris slowly eroding my life from before? Was I going to totally forget Shawn, and our life?
I now understand that it wasn’t about the photos, exactly, but more about what it meant to move forward. I didn’t know how I’d hold Shawn’s memory and share real love with Chris. But I did, of course.
It’s just that the request, while logical, wasn’t that simple. Chris (and our “hopeful fiance to a widow”) asked something straightforward. But – and I mean this respectfully – you don’t really know all that you’re asking.
While I’d like to take credit for giving you what turned out to be really important time and space after our initial conversation, I think that may have happened simply because we were both busy with the early pandemic chaos of remote work and kid-wrangling. In our relationship, now our marriage, I’ve learned that to iron some things out, we really need a string of conversations. This was actually NOT one of those times. It turns out we actually needed the opposite – just time and space.
I didn’t say anything else about it. Neither did you. And then one day, several months later, I noticed that some of the pictures on the wall had been re-arranged. Of course we still have pictures of Shawn up. Our family wouldn’t be complete without the pictures and memories of Shawn. But we have also slowly begun to populate our home with items, images, art – things that evoke a life that is continuing to happen, with a cast of characters that doesn’t include Shawn, but does include five people (among the many) who think and talk about him often.
That’s right. I took a good few weeks to just sit with the idea of taking down some of the more romantic photos I had up – ones from my wedding day with Shawn, or other intimate moments. I imagined what it would feel like to replace them with other photos – photos from our life and from my new love. It took me weeks to think about taking down even one wedding photo. I thought about it a lot before I actually did it.
But you know what’s interesting? All this time I knew one thing: I was not in love with Shawn anymore. I was in love with Chris.
And it was still hard to take down the photos. It felt so final, for some reason.
Still, the day came when I took down one photo, and I realized that it felt okay. I hadn’t forgotten Shawn. I would always remember him. But I could take down a few others – the ones that were just the two of us – and make space for the life I was living.
It felt good to make space for my life with Chris.
But the process of taking down photos wasn’t immediate. So I guess my advice to the “hopeful fiance” is this: know that you can ask for bedroom photos to come down. It’s okay to voice your feelings on this topic. And also, it may take a lot longer than you expected to come to a resolution.
But that may be just what’s best for both of you, as you slowly grow your lives together.