I am wondering if you have some direction for a close friend of mine who is having a very difficult time. Her 26-year-old son (a police officer) died in an off-duty accident. His wife was driving, and he was not wearing his seat belt, hit black ice and flipped the car. He died two years ago this coming January. He married his grade school sweetheart four years ago, and they had a daughter. They have a very close group of guys (she basically had no girlfriends; she was part of that guy group). Ten months after his death, she started dating one of the guys that was in their very close-knit group of friends. His parents had mixed feelings about it. They wanted her to be able to have a life for herself and small daughter, yet they felt that this guy was stepping into their departed son's life. They were able to deal with it and accept it but always with mixed feelings.
They now are going to get married in August 2013. My friend is now having a very hard time dealing with her mixed feels of wanting her to have a wonderful life for them but yet feeling that this close friend is stepping into her departed son's life. She has always been very close with this guy as the group spent half their life at her house. They were all like her sons. Now she feels horrible because she has these feelings. She knows God and has him in her life but yet is unable to reconcile her feelings. Initially, she felt that it was better to have her be with someone that they all knew and loved versus a stranger, but now she is wondering if her daughter-in-law is settling just so she is not alone because she has never been without someone since eighth grade.
Any input or suggestions where she could turn to or a therapist and what to look for in a therapist would be helpful.
-L.F., Las Vegas
"Til death do us part "
In most cases, a widow's grief must be complicated, if for no other reason than human beings are made for relationship. We are not built to be alone. When you add the vulnerabilities of being a young, widowed mother, it's easy to see how difficult it would be to juggle a broken heart on the one hand with the understandable fear of, "What's going to happen to me?"
So, yes, she could be settling, I suppose. Recently widowed people have that in common with recently divorced people: It's no easy task to see clearly the deeper reality of a new relationship while you're navigating a broken heart. For the first 12 months, anyway, most divorced or widowed people should staple a sign to their head saying, "Grieving person; run away quickly."
And then there are the grieving extended family members. Your friend. The father. Perhaps siblings, nieces and nephews. Their grief must be complicated, too. The rational brain says, "Of course my son's wife deserves a happy, complete life. Of course she has every right to a new, healthy union. As does my granddaughter deserve a committed, faithful father figure." But the heart is irrational. And filled with ... denial and envy.
Denial? Yes. Celebrating the widow's new life is a glaring confirmation of the loss. You can hear the denial even in your own language choice description of your friend's experience, that some other man is "stepping in to the son's departed life." Not true, of course, but, in the denial, that's what it feels like.
Envy? Yes. Though we condemn ourselves for the feeling, we are forced to admit that, in some way, we bear a painful resentment regarding the widow's moving on with her life. When we first hear our granddaughter call the new husband "Daddy," it will cut like a knife. How dare life go on?
A competent therapist could help your friend articulate and "own" these painful, ambivalent feelings while providing the advocacy needed to avoid self-hatred for these same feelings. Also - and I promise you this - beneath these irrational (but nonetheless REAL) feelings lies another round of grieving. The irrational feelings are at once part of the grief and a defense against the grief. Bereavement therapy is a specialty in the field.
That's what your friend should be looking for - a skillful, experienced bereavement therapist. Before these very human, very painful, very complicated feelings perhaps inflict unintended damage to surviving relationships.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.