Tug of Love
A couple of weeks ago, I pulled on my best jeans, dug out my posh earrings and toddled over the road for a bit of a do to celebrate the Golden Wedding anniversary of two of our neighbours. It was a lovely evening filled with laughter, balloons and delicious cake, a mix of four generations of their family, friends they had known throughout their fifty-years of marriage and the newest of their friends, Gorgeous Grey-Haired Widower and me. I know I moan about how much I miss London, but I love the strong sense of community in this part of north Hertfordshire, and neighbours such as these (and there are others) have gone a long way to making us feel at home over the last two years.
During the party, I mused that even if GGHW and I were to get married instantly – say there was a vicar at the do who could provide a wedding licence, a posh frock and our own cupcake tower – it was unlikely that we would ever celebrate our Golden Wedding. I’d be 101 and he’d be 105, and whilst there are sometimes little snippets on the local news featuring two old dears holding papery-thin mottled hands over an enormous cake whilst a reporter bellows at them, ‘HAROLD! DOT! WHAT’S THE SECRET OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE?’ (to which Harold usually replies, ‘Always let the wife think she’s right.’), it’s probably not going to happen for us, and anyway, such is the state of my memory since landing on Planet Grief, even if we did make it, I doubt I’d even recognise who I was married to, let alone feel like sucking champagne through my dentures.
At one point during the evening, I got chatting to a man I know whose mother had died just over a year ago. His parents had been married for forty-eight years, heartbreakingly close to their Golden Wedding anniversary. ‘How’s your father doing?’ I asked him. ‘He’s got another woman,’ came the surprising reply. ‘He’s selling up and moving to live near her.’
Now, given that I met GGHW before the first anniversary of JS’s death – something which caused me endless angst and soul searching – you’d think that I would have greeted this comment with a sanguine, ‘How lovely!’, but it gave me a jolt, and all I could say was, ‘Gosh,’ which sounded judgmental, and then a rather intrusive and completely unnecessary, ‘What’s she like?’
I know, I know, but just because I’m wearing the shoes of grief, doesn’t mean I can always walk comfortably in them.
The man shrugged and said, ‘I don’t know, I’ve never met her. I don’t want to. Why would I?’
I winced, not just because of my stunningly gauche line of interrogation, but because it took me back…
Last year, I was due to host a lunch for some close family members, including JS’s only son who was visiting from Australia. A couple of days before we were due to meet up, Only Son emailed me to ask that GGHW didn’t attend the gathering. He said he wanted me to be happy, but he didn’t want to meet my new man and that he would feel uncomfortable if his father looked down and saw us all laughing together. I read the email and then I did what I always do when I’m hurt and disappointed: I behaved like a five year-old whose ice-cream has just plopped onto the pavement: my lip wobbled, I stared at the computer screen and then I had a tantrum. But devouring all these self-help books must be doing something, because as I was stropping around my study, something academic researcher, best-selling author and total girl-crush Brené Brown said popped into my head, which was that by all means be pissed off, but be ‘pissed off with perspective’. My perspective shifted: my view was that if JS could poke his head through the clouds and look down on The Wicked Lady pub in Wheathampstead he would be delighted to see everyone laughing together, but looking at it from the other side, the side of a grieving son, I could quite see why he would feel uncomfortable, and the last thing in this world I would ever want to do is to hurt JS’s family.
I emailed back to say that I understood his position and that GGHW would stay away, and he did, but after the lunch and driving home in reflective mood, I became angry. Not once had the subject of my new life or anyone in it cropped up over the battered calamari. There was no mention of my house move or how I was finding life outside London, no asking after GGHW or his family. I was incensed that this massive part of my life had been completely glossed over, furious that GGHW’s two sons (who had lost their mother as teenagers) could be so warm and welcoming to me from the get-go, and yet a man in his thirties with a family of his own and an independent life eleven-thousand miles away, couldn’t. It was GGHW and his sons who dug me out of a snow-covered road, unblocked my drains and fixed my gutters. It was GGHW’s family that had welcomed me at Christmas, celebrated my birthday and helped me move house, yet this grown man couldn’t meet my new partner to shake his hand and just say, ‘Thank you,’ even if it was said through gritted teeth and with a silent, ‘Sorry, Dad,’ sent skywards. I was pissed off alright, and I was pissed off with perspective, my perspective being that good manners trumped uncomfortable feelings. Hell, I’d even hand-written thank you notes to everyone who had written to me after JS died, despite the fact that at the time, I could barely find the energy to unscrew the top off a bottle of cheap plonk, but I did it because to me, good manners matter and because I knew JS would expect nothing less. But the conversation at the recent party reminded me just how complicated emotions surrounding grief can be, for all of us.
Widows and widowers who go on to make new lives with new partners say that their husbands and wives can never be replaced. But is that strictly true? The person they were, the richness (or frustrations) they added to our lives can never be replaced, but we can – and do – marry again, becoming someone else’s husband or wife, even if the thought of it after we are widowed is abhorrent. But marriage is a legal coming together, not a biological one, and perhaps DNA ties run deeper than a signed piece of paper. You only ever have one biological mother or father, and however much you want happiness for the spouse left grieving, sitting at the table, looking across at a new face where your mother or father once sat, not to mention the possibility that you might even like this imposter, brings with it complicated feelings of betrayal and loss, as if by accepting the new, you are somehow demoting and disrespecting the old. I think that many of us who have started new relationships have struggled with that feeling. A new partner on the scene also drives home the fact that the family unit is now forever altered, and your mother or father is never ever coming back. Even though logically you know this, emotionally it can feel like a slap in the face from the Grief Monster, and who wouldn’t try and dodge its blows? It’s all so confusing, this tug of war between logic and emotions, and I’m no stranger to the tussle: there was absolutely no doubt JS had died in Barbados, but still, I occasionally see a man in the street and I have to look twice to check it isn’t him. Believe me, I never realised how many well-dressed, balding red-heads in glasses there were walking the streets of London until JS died.
Only Son is a good man, a kind man, just as the man at the party is, but there is an uncomfortable inner battle between their wanting us to be happy, but being unable to accept that things have changed, because change is painful, and when they are already grieving the loss of a parent, why should we pour further acid on an already gaping wound by trying to make them see how wonderful our new partners are, how they have enriched our shattered lives? If we, the widowed, truly love these people, we want to ease their pain, not intensify it. Sometimes, it’s not all about us, what we want, what makes our lives easier, sometimes it’s about making hard times easier for others, however long it takes. I’m sure that’s not just what we want for our close family, but what those we have lost would want for them too.