Thomas Pisello 0:00
Today we are welcoming back Helen Keeling-Neal. Helen is a licensed mental health counselor, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She’s also a nationally certified counselor. She hails from Winter Park, Florida, which is where she has her practice. And she too, unfortunately, has experienced loss, with the loss of her husband David, and that just when her children were four and six years old,
Helen Keeling-Neal 1:13
So we are here to discuss an interesting topic, one that I think as widowers start to go out and date and start to have relationships, that I know I faced and many of you will face as well. And that is incompatible bedfellows: your new partner, and your grief.
When we date, many of us have faced a point where our new partners struggle a little bit. They may not be comfortable with the grief, and the spirits of our lives past. Talk about that Helen, and some of your experiences there.
You know, the difference between loss through death and loss through divorce is so profound. The most challenging component is that in loss of life, it doesn’t end the love.
Most of the time in divorce situation, the love is dead when people leave that situation and not necessarily all the time, but most of the time, they don’t have any loving leftovers as they split up.
But for those of us who’ve lost someone, the love doesn’t go away. And that, I think, is quite difficult for someone when you’re starting a new relationship with them. Because it’s almost like having to reconcile that you love someone else even though you also love this new person. And it’s a difficult concept to get, that the heart can expand to encompass both, and that this love is still there for a spouse who’s passed away, or a girlfriend or boyfriend that’s passed away. This doesn’t mean that love is not here for the present partner.
Yeah, I totally agree with that, in the sense of the heart expanding talk about that a little bit, Helen, because I think that’s a great metaphor for when there’s still love left.
Now, not all of us had perfect relationships with our late spouse, right. But in a divorce, a lot of times you leave that relationship and it’s not only that there is no love for the person, but there’s often hate and other things to deal with.
With a loss of a spouse, there’s almost always love remnants that are there, and the heart is still full in a way… it’s not empty. It’s not an empty vessel.
A lot of times I think the partner feels like, “Well, is there any room for me in that heart that isn’t empty, that is still maybe quarter full, half full, or full, full”. Talk about that.
The wonderful thing about human hearts is that they have this unlimited capacity for love. And even if someone is worried that there isn’t enough love to go around, the human, the state of humaneness, is that we expand our love to encompass someone new.
And we don’t have to cut off the heart piece that holds the love from the past. You don’t have to do that. You don’t have to dismiss it or cut it off or pretend it’s not there. Because your heart, your love will just grow.
I look at it in the context of what it’s like going from one child to another. I don’t know about you, but I was thinking, how could I possibly love another child as much as I loved my first born. And literally when my second child was born, my heart doubled in size. And then that love encompassed her, my second child as well.
And that’s the same kind of love that happens when you have a new partner after you lost someone. And there’s really actually a great strength in that, because that shows this ability to expand and love without having to dismiss any of the feelings from the past. And it’s wonderful. It is really an opportunity to grow and become even more loving as a person, as you find this new partner that you want to give that love to.
The thing to remember, that I want to point out, is that no relationship is ever the same, and no love is ever the same. And that there is not a sort of hierarchy in that new partnership. The new partner might feel like “Oh, I, you don’t love me as much as you love your wife”, or “Loving her detracts from the love that you have for me”. And that’s just not so. It’s not competitive. And it doesn’t need to be. It’s an expansion.
A couple of things on that. So when you begin dating, again, a lot of times in the home, there will still be some pictures up. Many of us have a hard time removing those pictures, or if they have been removed, there’s always still a couple of favorites that often are around. I like to keep pictures of Judy up, particularly for the kids, of when we first met. As do I, they tend to love those pictures. That beautiful young woman when we first met, and when the relationship was just in its beginning form. The kids have gravitated towards those. And I want to keep them up.
But sometimes that can cause issues. And I know that other widowers have faced this as well, where spousal pictures of your late wife pictures will sometimes cause issues.
Talk about that, and maybe ways that we can understand how our new partner might feel in this and ways where there should be boundaries, or we need to establish a new status quo.
Your new partner wants to feel like they are the most special, the most important. And they’re the priority. And so that can feel for some people like they’re not the priority.
But this is different because it really is about loss, and grief, and honoring the person for that part of their journey. So there are some nuances here which can be hard to navigate, and it also depends on the partnership. It depends on who you’re dating. If you’re dating and someone doesn’t have a secure attachment style, or have struggles with their own ego strength, and feeling their own value, of feeling worthwhile, of feeling lovable, then they’re going to struggle with the presence of the memory of love. Because that’s what it is.
That’s the presence of the memory of love. And so sometimes you’ll see someone coming in and wanting to change everything. Things like taking all the pictures down, almost like someone’s expected to box up the entire past history of that relationship and put it in the attic.
That can tend to be about unresolved issues in your new partner. It is important to be caring, respectful and understanding to make sure that the person who you may be moving in with together, feels like their essence, their energy is now in your home together, and it’s your couple ship energy that is primary.
But, if there are particular photos that are really important to the family, you need to have a discussion about that and talk about it. You want to take the pictures out of the bedroom for sure. Right? Add new photos of you and your new partner’s coupleship together. Take that one photo, that special one, and maybe you or your daughter may want to have that in her room, as you move forward and create a new home. Or you may have that photo in your office or in an area that is more yours, but it’s not the focal point. It’s not the focus at that moment. I think that’s important.
I recently took a photo and it went from a dresser in my bedroom and from a bedside table. The longer I was dating someone, now it’s in the hallway.
So this is my progression. I still have David’s presence, because we have a family unit, we have children, that’s always going to be, and I still feel like I’m honoring him. But I don’t need that to be in the forefront of my home anymore.
I wanted to ask you if you’ve ever struggled with a partner, indicating “I feel like David is on a pedestal, and I can’t compete with them”.
Yeah, that happens a lot. And you know, it’s not competitive. And then that’s what is a really important piece, it’s not a competition.
If a widow or widower is in a relationship, and they’re looking to that new person to become similar to their deceased spouse, then the widower is not ready for a relationship. They’re maybe playing out their grief through that relationship. But if someone’s in a relationship, because they want to be in a relationship, and they want to be in a relationship with that person, but that person is setting themselves up in competition with a deceased spouse, well they’re setting themselves up to fail, because you can’t compete with someone who is dead. You just cannot. And you shouldn’t, it’s a completely different thing. These are two completely different relationships, they should not be compared either by the new partner, or by the widow or widower.
And also, being careful to not go over to your partner’s side of the street and try and make that better for them. There’s a piece of emotional work that they may have to do, to become secure and who they are in relationship with you. Whoever that is. If they have enrolled themselves in the competitive role, there’s probably something that they’ve experienced, growing up, in their divorce in their previous relationships, that may have felt like they were in competition for something.
Now, children make it harder sometimes, because there is definitely an honor that needs to be upheld with your late wife, particularly when there are special days and milestones that you want to celebrate, and to remember. Mother’s Day is a particular one that comes to mind. Judy’s birthday, and Angelversary is one where there needs to be time dedicated to recognizing that this is a special day for the children and the honoring.
We had a widower I know where the burial place for his wife is not here. A rather recent passing and he traveled with the children to go and do a visit and honor in person. It can sometimes cause challenges: “Why are you going away to do that?”, “Why do you have to, you celebrate and take a couple of days to do X, Y, and Z?” “Why are there social posts with photos and remembrance and things like that?”
We’ve all faced those comments. And it’s not just me. I’m sure you’ve faced these to0, Helen? I know of several widowers who’ve talked to me about this. So it’s not uncommon.
Look, we want to respect the new relationship. And we want to make sure that they know that they’re special and that this is not as you said a competition. But at the same time, there’s definitely some remembrance and honor and reverence that needs to be paid there.
How the heck do you balance that?
And here’s a really good point. I’m gonna circle back for a second on the competition piece. The widower needs to be aware to not put their deceased loved one on a pedestal. And if they are putting that person up on a pedestal, then it does create competitive energy. So you want to be reality based when you talk about her.
Your loved one has passed on. Things change as the time gets longer after a loss. So those first few years, those first five years or so, depending on the person, are really important. And really are about honoring and remembering and celebrating, and learning how to do life differently. Learning how to do differently with your children.
Special occasions like Mother’s Day are hugely important days, Father’s Day is a hugely important day for us, or it was. It’s not so much anymore because we are 12 years on for us. But it’s really important that a new partner tread very carefully when there are children in the family unit, who’ve lost a parent. Those children’s needs, around their emotional needs, around celebrations, and around remembrance are really important. And having an understanding or empathy towards the loss of a Mom or a Dad or a Spouse is essential.
So one would expect some empathy here. I think sometimes opening up and asking that new partner if they would participate in something, because they’re important to you, and important now in the family, I just throw out an example if maybe you and the girls were going to light a candle on Mother’s Day for Judy,, maybe you might ask a partner to be with you while you did that, and then also have another candle ready to light for her.
So doing it that way, you would discuss that with the girls first to make sure that they were okay with that. So that they wouldn’t feel like it wouldn’t detract from what they’re trying to do for their Mom, but finding some way to invite in a partner to include them. And giving them an opportunity to step forward and be empathetic and supportive, because that’s what would be appropriate. Any friend would do that, right? That’s an important thing.
And then over time, what is equally as important is developing new traditions with your partner that are different from the old ones you’ve had in your late wife’s and in different relationships, these acute things that are going to be your coupleship. Maybe this was what you did in your relationship with Judy, but now in this new relationship, this is what you do to honor things. And then over time, as the years go by, there’s less of a need to really focus a chunk of time on it becomes less and less as the grieving continues.
Now, if someone doesn’t do the grieving actively, then they can stay stuck in every angelversary for the next 30 years, being in this agonizing position and bad place to be in, which would make a partner feel like “What’s going on here? Are you looping your grief? Are you moving through the grief?”. I think active participation is good. I think another thing is, and I was writing about this today, expressing grief does not detract from your love for someone else. A love that’s just expressing grief though has nothing to do with a new love.
I think that many times it can be viewed by your partner, especially if they’ve gone through divorce where they don’t want to have any thoughts of their ex, while here, you still have thoughts, and there may not be an understanding of that.
I’ve had several widower brothers say, “You know what, I think I just need to look for a widow, because she will understand the loss. And would it be easier and I would not be dealing with some of these same issues”.
What are your thoughts on that? As a widow yourself, does it make it easier when there’s a widower – widow relationship, because you both have been through loss and can therefore understand it better?
It certainly makes it easier to talk about it. Right? Because you have that commonality.
Would it be easier in a relationship? Yes, in some ways, it could be easier. But I’m a firm believer in that you can work through anything in a relationship, so it doesn’t necessarily have to be that.
With divorce. there is so much that goes on, and it can be such an intense feeling. And people tend to stay in anger around the divorce. And anger is a protection against sadness. So sometimes it’s difficult for someone to support someone going through grief of loss, if they haven’t gone through their own grief process around their divorce, or maybe a loss of a parent or some other kind of loss of death or something earlier on, and that can get projected out. Why are you grieving? It’s been “this many” years since the loss of your wife, maybe even translatable as I do not want to feel sad, so “please stop your sadness”.
You do have to let the other person go through their emotions, support them, and still know that there’s love there.
How do you make sure they know that you are looking to the future and not stuck in the grief of the past, and that you are building a future with them, even if there are references done back to the past?
Sometimes just the fact of being in a relationship with them, as an example that you’re wanting to build a future. And I know you well enough to know that you are not a man who is stuck in the past. If anything, you’re a man who is motivated by growth, and is motivated by healing. You’re a man who has gone to the deepest and darkest parts of your experience, including going all the way back to early childhood trauma stuff. So you’re the opposite of someone who is stuck.
When someone is stuck, that looping of the same feelings over and over again, around the exact same piece. Now, grief can look like that, because grief brings up big feelings, intense feelings, and they can be random. It’s nonlinear. And it might just come out of the blue, but it’s different. And the way you can see it’s different is because you or I, we’ve moved on in our life we’ve moved on in the things we’re doing. We both started dating, new relationships, work changes, and all these different things that you and I have been doing.
If someone is at the point where they haven’t been able to move anything in the house that belonged to their partner and it’s seven years later, then likely they’re stuck. They’re stuck. And if they can’t even think about their wedding day, without meaning to go to bed for two hours, after, a certain number of years in, we’re not talking the first few years beyond that, then they may be stuck in that grief and be recycling it. And then I find oftentimes, there’s a component in there that with some digging down to some deeper stuff, that it may not be about that grief, but it may be about the compound grief that’s going on.
But you’re asking how do you show someone? How do you prove to someone this? Well, you shouldn’t have to. You don’t have to prove it. You can just be as you are, and live it and grow and get to know this person and move forward. You shouldn’t have to pass a test.
I love that, Helen. Thank you. And I think that there are a lot of widowers that I know have questioned me about it, where they feel like it in some ways, it is like a test. And they struggle with that.
There shouldn’t be a test.
That’s fair. And so is that a “deal breaker”?
Well, it depends on the couple. This is what I was gonna say: “You either grow or you go”. That’s what I was going to talk about.
Because we were talking about whether it Is a deal breaker. Well, you either grow or you go. So you may have like a three hour intense conversation about this. And there may be tears and anger and all this kind of stuff going through, but you either grow or you go, and so there is an opportunity in a relationship to grow to a deeper understanding of each other. And to say, “Hey, I feel like you’re testing me, like I’m in the SATs here, and I need to get the correct score to be able to be with you”. But this is not a fair test. And then the other person may say, “Hey, I feel like the ghost of your wife or husband is sitting next to us on the couch. And I’m feeling like I’m not important”. So you talk about it, discuss it.
Absolutely love it, Helen. What’s the one piece of advice you’d like to give to our widowers, to our growth warriors today about balancing life with their new partner and their grief, and how to adjust, handle and grow in this.
So I think the one piece would be to tread very carefully when there are children in the family, even adult children, because it’s really important to remember that this is their Mom or their Dad that has been lost.
And if a new partner comes in, and now wants to put aside everything to do with Mom that will not help in the building of this new family. In fact, if anything, it can fracture it.
So tread carefully and make sure to honor the children’s feelings as well as your own as you’re going through it, as well as being mindful and caring about new partners feelings.
Incredible advice. Go or grow.
It’s so memorable. Thank you so much for joining us again.
You’re welcome. Good to be here.