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How Long Is 'Long Enough'?


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This insightful article was written by Julie Donner Andersen, dear friend and author of the award-winning book, PAST: Perfect! PRESENT: Tense! Insights From One Woman’s Journey As The Wife Of A Widower.

How Long Is ‘Long Enough’?

By Julie Donner Andersen

A widowed friend of mine fell in love with a man she had known throughout her entire twenty-five year marriage, two months after her spouse’s death from terminal cancer. She confided to me that while she would probably never get over her husband’s death, her grief was now “manageable”. She mentioned that during her husband’s year long fight to survive, her overwhelming duties as his caretaker had plunged her into an early grief long before her husband actually drew his last breath. She felt confident that she had reached a point in her grief journey where her heart could make room for both her new love and her memories of her late husband.

However, friends and family alike clucked their judgmental tongues and warned her that two months was not long enough for her to have come to grips with her loss. They concluded that my friend’s new relationship was “transitional” at best, and that her feelings for the new man in her life couldn’t possibly be real. They decided that her grief must have rendered my friend lonely and confused, and assumed that she couldn’t be ready to love again so soon after her tragic loss. Finally, they determined that by openly parading her new relationship around town, my friend was acting irresponsibly and insensitively to her late husband’s memory. They felt her actions were downright shameful.

My friend soon ended her relationship with her new love, but not because she felt that she was stuck in a stage of the grief cycle, or because she stopped loving him. She just couldn’t bear the lack of support, the negative reactions to her happy news, and the pointing and whispering that went on behind her back. She died six months later, brokenhearted and alone.

I can relate to my late friend’s fear of negative societal response. When I met my previously widowed husband, his wife had been gone for almost three years.

While he was certain within his own heart and mind that he was mentally and emotionally prepared to rejoin the living and move on with his life, his circle of supposed supporters were just as quick to admonish him. Three years, they decided, was not a suitable timeframe in which to complete the grief cycle, and cast a deciding vote against not only his new life but also on me as his new love interest.

I believed that by the three-year mark, my then-boyfriend would have already dealt with his grief issues to everyone’s satisfaction. I naively judged that three years was definitely the “kosher” amount of time for someone to lose a spouse, do some grieving, and move beyond bereavement into the dating scene again. Imagine my shock to learn that in some folks eye view, in total opposition of my own, three years was like a drop of water in an ocean of time.

So who was right? Were my husband’s friends correct to disapprove of his three year waiting period? Was it accurate for me to assume that three years was long enough? And what about my late friend? Was two months not long enough, and if not, then how long IS “long enough”?

Our society is made up of people with vastly differing opinions. One person’s definition of “right/enough” is another person’s judgment of “wrong/not enough”. Therefore, a standard against which to measure the appropriateness of a widow’s or widower’s readiness to rejoin the dating pool does not really exist. Grief is an emotion, and as with all emotions, grief has no boundaries, nor does it come with its own timetable or set of rules.

Like any other emotion, grief is neither “right” nor “wrong” – it just is. While three years may be the “suitable” amount of time for some survivors’ grief cycles to come full circle, it is definitely not “long enough” for other widows or widowers. But one thing is for sure - only the man or the woman who is struggling to move beyond bereavement can make that determination. No one else can, or should, make it for them.

Society bases its judgments on its own comfort level, and inevitably makes sweeping generalizations based upon them. If we are not comfortable with bi-racial marriage, then we claim it is “wrong”. If we are unnerved by homosexuality, then we shout from the rooftops that it is a “deviant lifestyle”. When people allow ignorance to cloud their rational thought, which in turn leads them outside of their comfort zones, the resulting concrete judgments make everyone suffer, and compassion, tolerance, and acceptance are damned to the wayside.

This same theory appears to hold water in regard to widows and widowers who wish to re-enter the dating world. Society is simply not adequately informed about the totality of grief, but still allows this ignorance to cast stones at the widow/er for contemplating dating or remarriage.

To its benefit, perhaps society does so to protect its weakest at the most vulnerable time in its members’ lives. We do not like standing idly by and watching a broken spirit be taken advantage of, nor do we want such a fragile heart to be hurt again, so we rush in to defend a widow/er’s honor in the name of protecting him/her from making a mistake. However, in doing so, we disregard that widow/er’s personhood and assume that they are far too grief-stricken to formulate rational thoughts and decisions, thereby confusing the bereaved even further and causing “fits and starts” in what otherwise might be a healthy new relationship with a new partner.

Perhaps we, as a society, are skeptical of widow/er remarriage because those of us who have had long and happy marriages cannot even begin to fathom doing so ourselves should we lose our spouses. It is hard to guess how we would react within the realm of grief, much less if we would consider loving again, while walking through the stages of grief. But therein lies the rub. We cannot make assumptions about something or someone we know nothing about.

What society fails to recognize about the journey of grief is that people grieve in their own distinct ways, and in their own differing lengths of time. No two grieving individuals share the same grief journey because they, like people themselves, are unique to each person. To make judgments about the move beyond bereavement being “too soon” or “long enough” without ever having personally stepped a foot on the path of grief is like opining about giving birth when you have never been pregnant. Sure, you could read the literature and make an intelligent speech about the mechanics of the birth process, but you would not be viewed as credible when speaking of the mental and emotional aspects of carrying and delivering a child. Only a birth mother could do that.

It would seem to follow, then, that fellow widows and widowers would understand their counterparts and give them latitude in regard to loving again or wanting to remarry, no matter what the length of time between loss and newfound love. Ironically, though, other widows and widowers who have yet to find new love, or could care less about finding it, are often the least supportive of their fellow loss survivors who are already at that point in their personal grief journeys.

One possible explanation of this is what I refer to as “The Pedestal Effect”. Grief researchers and scholars have noted that most widow/ers experience a period during grief where they "canonize” their late spouse’s memory, thereby placing the deceased on a pedestal too high for anyone to approach.

In this stage of grief development, the bereaved can only remember that his/her late spouse was perfect in every way, and that no one could ever “take his/her place”. A new love interest who may be compared to this unattainable standard of perfection is doomed to pale. Many widow/ers feel that they must remain single/widowed to preserve the memory of their late spouse. This act is self-sacrificial in nature, but is often the antithesis of personal growth. To these particular widow/ers, loving again is akin to dishonoring a deceased’s memory, and they can be very critical of another widow/er who dares to defame their own respective “saint”.

To love again after loss takes an extreme amount of courage, considering the obstacles that stand in the way of a widow/er’s own personal happiness. However, if you are a survivor who has been alone for either a few weeks or several decades and are wondering what the answer to the question “How long is ‘long enough’?” might be, I can tell you without hesitation - it’s whenever YOU decide the time is right.

Copyright © 2003 by Julie Donner Andersen. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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