moving on

Miniature of Catherine de' Medici, "a rar...

Miniature of Catherine de’ Medici, “a rare portrait of Catherine before she was widowed in 1559, when she adopted the veil and severely plain dress of a widow.” (Hearn, Karen, ed. Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630. New York: Rizzoli, 1995. ISBN 0-8478-1940-X.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not much induces the widowed to pick up pitchforks and growl in unison like the idea that they should have to tear down their shrines in order to be decent candidates for others to consider dating.

“Anyone I date or remarry is just going to have to fine with being a member of a threesome.”

Or something to that sadly creepy refrain is what is generally trotted out and translates thusly,

“Love me. Love my dead spouse. And if you don’t, well than you are just too immature and/or insecure and/or possibly jealous to be a good fit for me, and we are NOT amused!”

This is often followed by truly Hallmark heart-warming anecdotes about someone’s auntie who was tragically widowed but went on to remarry this awesome guy was totally okay with the pictures, the shared headstone and being a hankie on anniversaries. There are, apparently, a Chicken Soup for the Soul’s worth of these selfless men, and women, who don’t mind building holidays around the widowed person’s in-laws, whole walls decorated with the awesomeness of love lost and don’t mind being “just the second wife/husband”.

Even more militant are the widowed parents determined to anchor their children to perpetual mourning by making sure that the “real mom/dad” is never forgotten. As if children are in danger of forgetting that their mother or father died young and need to have it in their face daily lest they develop a healthy parent/child relationship with their step-parent.

First, can we lay the “immature/insecure/jealous” thing to rest already? Drive a stake through this trope once and for all?

When your new partner intimates in some way that he/she isn’t feeling the love, whether the cause is pictures, in-laws or daily recounting of good times past, this is not about anything other than the perfectly normal desire we all have to be number one in the heart of the person we love. Whether you feel the feelings are justified or not is secondary to the actual issue, which is, your lover isn’t feeling loved.

They are, in fact, feeling second best at best and merely a warm body stand-in at worst. Making this be about you and your need to “grieve it all out” is probably a sign that your partner is right. You are not really as ready to date or remarry as you thought.

Look no one expects a widowed person to hide all aspects of their past. No one.

That is a myth.

What you are expected to do, however, when you decide to date, have a serious relationship or remarry is live in the present tense and put your primary focus on your new partner.

Would you be okay knowing that your new love spent most of his/her time being sorry that he/she wasn’t still with their last partner? Would a shrine to this on the mantle be okay? Arranging all your holidays around the last partner’s family would be acceptable? Would you like to hear daily how SoNSo was the best (fill in the blank) ever and wonder what that made you?

And yes, I concede that a few prospective partners might on the surface appear to be okay with a new husband or wife who primarily identified as a widowed person first and foremost, but I am going to say these saint like martyrs have a lot in common with unicorns, lusted after but still mythical. Even the most understanding partner has moments of “Oh, come on. Really?”

Do you have to purge your home of all traces of your late spouse when you begin to date?

I would say no. Dating is just getting to know you, having fun, assessing possibilities. I don’t know many adults who make it a habit of bringing home “just dates” to meet the children and check out the new foam mattress you got at Costco. But if a “date” progresses to “someone I am seeing regularly, seriously considering and/or shagging”, you should probably reassess your physical surroundings and ask yourself,

“If I were X, how would I feel about pictures, urns, closets waiting for a dead guy/gal to come home?”

And think about it from the perspective of the non-widowed person you used to be because the odds of dating a fellow widowed person aren’t that great (even if you do hang around the widowed internet chat rooms, message boards and websites). Your live person dating pool is more likely to be inhabited by the never-married, the serial monagamists and the divorced, who have no valid reason to expect that as a widowed person, you should enjoy some super-special pass on doing the heavy lifting of moving on anymore than they did because they have pasts too.

Are some mementos okay?

Of course! Whoever said they weren’t?

When you hear “it’s a good idea to clean out closets and tone down the presence of your late spouse in your living space” and you translate it to “shred everything!” perhaps reassessing your relationship readiness, or asking yourself just why it’s critical to your children’s well-being that an entire wall of the family room be dedicated/dominated to your late spouse, is in order.

It’s perfectly normal to have a few things out and about if you like, but it’s not so much to keep a photo on the nightstand if you are knocking the headboard with someone else or to insist that toothbrushes or robes be left in place like they were evidence at a crime scene. At some point, a late spouse’s personal items have to be cleared out and put away and that time – if you are a decent person who values the feelings of those you might get intimately involved with – is before you get intimately involved.


Because not doing so is a way of controlling your new relationship and new love by putting him/her in a Catch-22 that can only end with your dismissing him/her as “immature, insecure and jealous”.  You get the “poor widow me” high road and he/she gets the a scornful boot toe up the bum-hole.

Anyone who gets involved with a widowed person has empathy for the situation, wants to be helpful and understanding and usually goes above and beyond in the pursuit, but every one of these folks is hoping that at some point you will come to value them as more than “the person I am with because the person I would rather be with is dead”.

That’s what constant reminders of your late spouse – in any form – is saying to those you date and re-mate.

Even when you think you are being selfless by not spending every single holiday with the in-laws or by keeping at least the bedroom dead spouse picture free, there is a fine line between occasional reminders as you move on and build a new life and set of memories/memorabilia with someone else and being that guy or gal who is still so focused on their late spouse that people silently wonder why your new spouse is still with you because they can’t believe how appallingly selfish you are.

How do I know if I am over the line?

You could ask. Really. Ask. And not in a way that is designed to catch out your new partner so you can proclaim “I would never ask you to erase your dead spouse (if you had one) from your life!” Followed by you bursting into tears and him/her feeling like an asshole.

Or you could just be honest with yourself and assess your living space as though you weren’t widowed. Think about how often you interject conversations with “we” memories when the “we” is you and the late spouse and not you and the one you are currently with.

You’ll know. You probably already do.

What if my new love is fine with everything?

They are lying to you because they love you. Didn’t you ever put up with crap from someone just because you loved them so very much in the hopes that one day he/she would just see how awesomely understanding you were and change their ways?

No one is fine living in the perpetual shade of a dead love. No one is okay with being number two (or three or four because some of you even downgrade your new partner to a status below that of your children) in someones’ heart.

Few people are all that enamoured of their own in-laws let alone a second set (or third if they happen to be divorced or widowed themselves), who take precedence or are allowed to interfere or dictate or are happy living in a house that clearly isn’t theirs because their pictures, taste in decor or perhaps even their personal stuff hasn’t any room to compete with the pictures, favorite chair and flotsam of the dead person who was there before them.

Everyone wants to be cherished and feel as though he/she matters most to the person who matters most in his/her heart.

Even if you are dating a fellow widowed person. Even then. There is a line that when it is crossed, hearts will be broken and it’s not insecurity or immaturity. It’s you who will have done that by not having a clear understanding that moving on means doing just that in deed as well as words.

There is no way to erase your past and reasonable people know this. There is a point when you are wanting to have your yummy chocolate cake past and eat it while your new love wonders how long you are going to sit there and stuff your face in front of him/her.

Choosing to date again (and it’s a choice because accidental dating just doesn’t happen) is being ready to live in the now and give yourself fully and be more concerned with the feelings and well-being of your lover than you are with the past and hanging on to it.

It’s an awesome statement, don’t you agree? Found it on a yoga blog. But it caught my eye because it’s exactly what I believe about life and what I’ve found most others don’t.

The idea that all experience is finite doesn’t sit well in the modern world. For such an educated and advanced age, we are the least realistic collection of humanity probably ever and the most easily seduced by the silliest of ideas about what life is and isn’t.

In theory, I suppose, most of us would agree that the “doors close and windows open” cliché is more true than not. Life is not a windowless cube without means in or out and that we are held back the most by our own stubborn resistance and preference for avoidance as opposed to action.

Even the worst things in life lead somewhere and if we weren’t steeped in entitlement nonsense and fairy tale, we’d be better off because we wouldn’t whine, pout or fight against things that can’t be changed. We’d regroup, think, dream, scheme and move on.

I don’t expect anyone to agree with me, and for the record, I don’t believe this has anything to do with “happiness” though I do believe that happiness, like boredom, is self-inflicted. I do wonder why humans are so much more comfy cozy standing still ankle-deep in the past than moving through the exit to dry land.

I am hardly an expert but I do know a thing or two more than I would like about endings and beginnings and about moving on. I spent a good deal of time closing up the rooms in the dreams of the future my late husband and I imagined together in what seems now to be a long ago time but in reality is just a mere five years past. During his long illness, there were many endings. Most too painful to recount. There is a time for remembering loss and there comes a day when the laundry list of hurts isn’t a useful exercise anymore and I have reached that point. Ironically there were as many beginnings during times of tragedy and loss, and there is even growth. I changed job sites and age levels in my teaching career. Began and finished a masters program. Made new friends. Set new goals, among them a decision to change locale and careers in the short term future. It’s interesting the chain reactions decisions of all shapes and sizes have on the course of a person’s life. Some people are blown far afield by unexpected circumstances and their reactions to them. Some are brought to a dead stop, letting currents take them and waves sweep them under. Some keep moving, re-plotting their courses as the conditions warrant until they find themselves on stable ground again. My plans changed course over the course of my late husband’s illness and in the aftermath of his death and again when I met my now husband, Rob. In a strange way, Rob has always seemed a natural progression, a given, in a new beginning we seemed destined to share, so despite the rather momentous hurdles of leaving family, friends, home, job and country, it’s been in some ways the easiest of my transitions from then to now.

Being a widow I have the dubious pleasure to know many others. Male and female. Much older than I am and some young enough to be my sons or daughters. We have endings in common. That’s true. But a small portion of us share beginnings too. Some are triumphs and some are not. There is one gentlemen I know of through a message board for young widowed I frequent from time to time. He has taken to posting emails he receives from an organization called GriefShare, which tries to help bereaved people work through their losses. Recently he posted the following message:

What It Means to Move On

Moving on does not mean . . .
• you forget the person.
• you never feel the pain of your loss.
• you believe that life is fair.

Moving on does mean . . .
• you experience a lessening of the pain.
• you can treasure your best memories of the person who has died.
• you can realistically accept the different aspects of your loss.
• you can form new relationships, try new things.

Moving on also means . . .
• you grow in grace and in your walk with God.
• you accept your loss and forgive others.
• you understand that both joy and loss are a part of life.
• you believe that God is good, even when life isn’t.

My husband loathes the saying “moving on” like many widowed he prefers “moving forward”, and I try to use the term in deference to him though to me it is a bit of a semantics thing. In many ways beginnings do mean moving on as opposed to forward because it is not about momentum or trajectory as much as it is about putting certain dreams, hopes and deep feelings away in much the same way you pack up mementos from your children’s lives or souvenirs from a trip. My mother has a cedar chest in the basement of my childhood home that is crammed with tiny clothes, blankets, report cards and such that belonged, and were important, to her and to each of us kids in times now long past. I seldom think about the old rag doll I named CeeDee that lies there wrapped, I think, in the remnants of my sister Kate’s baby blanket. I know that it sounds like apples and oranges, comparing the inevitable of growing up to the loss of one’s spouse, but they are not as different as you think. As my mother has been annoyingly fond of pointing out to me over the years, everything is a growth experience. Because I look as though I have achieved adulthood doesn’t necessary mean I learned all there is to learn. I haven’t achieved the enlightenment of Sidharrtha. Possibly because I haven’t the time to sit under a tree until it smacks me on the head like gravity struck Newton. But in a way, widowhood has been my apple. We learn from everything and everyone in our lives, with luck, and at some point we move on from them – willing or not. It’s not about forgetting or minimizing. Time moves and sweeps us along in its wake, but its different from just being pushed forward. Moving on implies that we have packed up those things from our old lives that are important and special in our own cedar chests, loaded them on the truck and once arrived, carefully put them away.

I have a habit of choosing my mottoes from the lyrics of songs. One of my favorites was written by group called Semi Sonic. The song is entitled “Closing Time”. It uses the idea of a pub closing down in the wee hours as a metaphor for moving on and out into the big wide world. The song on the whole has a rather positive message but the line I truly love is “Closing time. Every new beginning comes from some other beginnings end.” There is so much truth in that one simple expression. So much faith as well because I know many people who see endings as endings and nothing more, and even though I can see their side of it, I find that kind of thinking short-sighted. The reason being that endings and beginnings, as Shakespeare once put it are “neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so.” Funny that I should find a line from Hamlet inspiring because there are few plays I dislike more than that dirge, but it is true.