Perhaps because of the lingering tragedy of September 11th, I am more aware now than I would ever wish to be of a particular group of married people: the widowed.
Stories come to us everyday of how difficult life has become for many widowed spouses, how bittersweet it is for the mothers with newborn children of murdered fathers and how some wives have taken their own lives out of grief and an inability to bear the burden of their sorrow. We feel pity for these people, shudder at the thought of ever having to endure that kind of pain ourselves...but in the end, few of us have any real understanding of what they're going through, or any meaningful or appropriate advice.
This is largely because our culture, and our media and entertainment in particular, have everything backwards. Movies, television, talk show hosts - everyone - tacitly or not so tacitly endorses the idea of being close to your ex, forgiving your ex, being friends with your ex, of carrying a torch for years, of hoping for a reconciliation, of "hooking up" again for some comfortable sex, of pining over them long after all hope is gone... but as for the widowed...well, get back on the horse, they say. Mourn, yes. Feel grief, yes. But move on! Get your life back, find love again, heal.
This is a complete inversion. You should move on, get your life back, heal and find love again after a divorce, and be patient, gentle and understanding with yourself after the death of your spouse. Furthermore I maintain that you should remain as much in love with your late spouse as you ever were and damn anyone who thinks there should be a time limit to your grief. I am, thankfully, no expert on grief or mourning or how to survive the loss of a beloved spouse, but of all the things in life that ought not to be covered up and anesthetized and forgotten about too quickly, certainly the love of your life should top that list.
Some people think that it's acceptable to pine for an ex-spouse because of the possibility - albeit slight - that a reconciliation might occur someday, and that it's useless to cling to the memory of someone who has died and who will never again be part of one's life. At least the ex-lover is still alive, they argue, so there's a reason to fantasize about being with them again. With this I couldn't disagree more, for a very simple reason.
A divorce happens for one or all of the following fundamental reasons; either you stopped loving your spouse, he or she stopped loving you, or you stopped loving each other. Which one it is hardly matters, the bottom line is that love ended, by someone's choice. Even if you are still in love with the spouse that abandoned you, as a rational person you shouldn't continue to love someone who wants nothing to do with you, especially someone who got to know you well and decided they didn't value what they saw. Ayn Rand referred to true love as one's "final, immutable choice of mate"; by that definition, anyone from whom you are divorced isn't your true love, now, then, or in the future - or at least, you certainly aren't theirs. Pining for them, refusing to move on from them or harboring the vain hope that one day they will somehow develop amnesia and fall in love with you all over again is as self-destructive as it is adolescent.
But when someone is widowed, this is a marriage that was stopped, cut short by the casual, occasional cruelty of reality. A couple may well have been very passionately in love with each other, perfectly happy with each other and eager to grow old together when the randomness of death broke them apart. This is the most devastating of blows, equal to or even greater than the loss of a child, something from which few people ever fully recover. To the divorced, love was ended, but to the widowed, only the marriage was. Even at that, the marriage was ended only by the capriciousness of life, not by the express wishes of either party. This is the crucial difference.
This is why the widowed deserve our quiet respect, not admonitions to forget and move on. This is why none of has the right to suggest they carry on as though their lives weren't suddenly and tragically ripped away from them, and why it is heartily offensive to suggest that they find someone else to love. They already have someone they love, and they may keep on doing so for the rest of their lives because they have no reason not to - there was no alienation of affection, their spouse did nothing to harm the marriage, it would be continuing right now in love and admiration if death hadn't interfered. None of us has the right to suggest that they should no longer love the one who has died. The widowed will come to their own peace, eventually, and will decide how they wish to live the rest of their lives - we should at least respect them enough to let them make those decisions in their own time, and to trust that they know what is best.
But what happens if you meet someone who has decided to attempt to get on with his or her life? What if you meet a widowed person who wants a new relationship but who has a hard time forgetting about the past? This is the one situation in which I would not advocate pushing the issue of primacy, and the one that requires the most forbearance and sensitivity that you can muster.
When you get involved with a divorced person, you have every right to expect to replace the former spouse, but when you become involved with a widowed person, you must be prepared to follow that spouse. You must be comfortable with the fact that your new partner will likely always love their late spouse, because nothing happened to make them stop, no alienation of affection, no rejection and no ill feelings ever interrupted their marriage. It doesn't mean that he or she can't have a fulfilling marriage with you, it simply means that his or her heart wasn't merely scarred by a former relationship, it was left with an open wound that will never fully heal.
It means that while they may develop strong romantic feelings for you, the romance they had with this other person will always remain, a little faded perhaps, a little distant sometimes but always there, in the back of their minds as a nostalgic little memory of a happy time. Your new spouse may have photos and mementos of the late spouse, they may have have memories they can't let go of and tokens that remind them of their marriage. Asking them to give these up would only hurt them all over again, and unless you feel their attachment to the late spouse is excessive or unhealthy, you ought to try to accept the presence of the late spouse in whatever way you're comfortable with. Some people who have married widows or widowers have described feeling "sisterly" or "brotherly" about the memory of the late spouse, as though sharing a benevolent feeling of family with them, while others view the memory of the late spouse as the one thing that kept their new spouse going in the lonely months after their loss, and something for which they are immensely grateful.
They may have children with that person, who will also feel the loss of their parent acutely and may not adjust to a new step parent easily. Again, this may tax the limit of your compassion and understanding, but if you remember that it is truly as though you have stepped into someone's ongoing relationship, and will have to tread carefully, then it might be easier to make the adjustment. As long as you remember that your new spouse's love was interrupted and ended prematurely, you may develop a better perspective on how they're trying to cope.
Can the widowed ever really move on and find love again? They can, and do. Many of them learn to accept their loss and try to find happiness again. I know that through the years there have been quiet agreements between lovers, promises made about the dreaded "what if's" wherein each partner makes the other promise that if the unthinkable happens, the other one will go on, will marry again, will let love back in their life. But I also know that for many widowed spouses, the second time around is never quite the same, that happiness in future marriages does not come easily or quickly, or without a certain amount of guilt, nostalgia, regret.
Whether it's deemed "unhealthy" or not to hold onto a lost husband or wife - or more accurately, whether someone else thinks it's unhealthy or not - couldn't matter less when it comes to a marriage interrupted. Each person has to find his or her own way to cope with that kind of loss, and they choose to never "get over it", that is as much a personal and private matter as anything in their marriage ever was.
I hope the widowed of September 11th - and of every day of every year - have the courage to hold onto their love for as long as it fills their heart.