Group Therapy is a relationship advice column that asks readers to contribute their wisdom.
A reader writes:
I have been in a loving relationship with a widower for over a year. His wife was a friend, and we began to talk after her death. Now we are in touch daily, but live in different cities. When he recently invited me for the weekend, I was shocked to find his wife's clothes still in the closet and her makeup on the dressing table. His explanation: "Everyone tells me I should do this when I am ready, and I am not ready." Although I recognize that this step is extremely difficult, the experience was creepy for me. He has invited me back and I'm not sure what to do.
For you, they are only 'things'
The first sentence of your letter speaks volumes - "a loving relationship." It sounds mutual and if that is the case then it should not be that big a problem to overlook his wife's "things." To you, they should just be that, things. To him, they are still a part of his grieving process. He has moved on enough that he can let you be a very major part of his life. In time he'll be able to put them away.
- Jonathan Mayer, Ottawa
Stay out of the marital bed
If your relationship has progressed to intimacy and you slept in the former marital bed surrounded by her possessions, that would be one of my "creepies" too. Let him know you'll sleep in the guest room on the next visit, and invite him to join you there. Or you could invite him to visit you. His "readiness" to embark on a new serious relationship should be signalled by a general overhaul of the old marital quarters. If he doesn't see that, he's looking for a replacement - probably not what you want for yourself.
- Joan Johnston, Toronto
He's not ready to let go
I'd come straight out with it: You appreciate the invitation and enjoy his company, but he said it himself - he's not ready to let go. Until he is, he's also not ready to invite a new person into his life. Tell him you miss his wife too, but until you are both ready to say goodbye, your relationship is best kept at the level of friendship (no sleepovers!).
- Allison Johnson, Calgary
The Final Word
On the one hand, I can imagine how awkward and strange it would be to visit a paramour, all a-twitter with the first blush of new romance, only to discover him living in an environment dominated by another woman in almost every respect except for her physical presence. But you know what I can't imagine -what I find unfathomable? The idea of losing the person I have spent my adulthood with, my life partner. We're not talking about a ladyfriend he took to the picture shows every once in a while, after all. We're talking about the person he has oriented his very existence around.
In his mind, you are a new girlfriend, which must be wildly exciting after a settled married life and the interminable-seeming grieving process he likely suffered after his wife's death. But you have to understand this isn't a situation that can be remedied by a simple attitude adjustment along the lines of "out-with the old, in with the new," as Allison implies. Your gentleman friend is coming to grips with the enormous psychological upheaval his wife's death has provoked. It represents much more than the loss of a person - it's the loss of his life as he has known it up until this point.
To sum up: Cut the guy some slack. I'm not saying you need to close your eyes to the way he is living, cheerfully nudging aside his deceased wife's coat so you hang up yours in the closet and - if Joan's assumption about sharing the "marital bed" is correct - blithely stepping over her slippers in the morning. Whatever stage your relationship is at, if staying in his house gives you the creeps, you can say so. (You may like to phrase it somewhat more diplomatically, though.) And you can say so without seeming to present him with an ultimatum.
He's been honest about his feelings; you can be honest about yours. The maintenance of a temporary wife-museum is clearly part of this man's grieving process, as Jonathan points out. Let him know you respect this. He'll appreciate your support, but it's also likely that your reaction to his shrine-like home will prompt him to start thinking seriously about what needs to happen next.
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Lynn Coady is the award-winning author of novels Strange Heaven and Mean Boy.