One evening, well into the night, fueled by a bottle or two of wine, we had an argument about something drawn from Andy’s work. The sociologist Harvey Sacks had said that when most people hear the phrase “The baby cried; the mummy picked it up”, they would assume that the woman involved was the baby’s mummy. I said that was obvious; Andy claimed there was nothing in the phrase to suggest that. Neither of us would give in. Amid gales of laughter, at four in the morning, we agreed to disagree.
My first marriage ended badly and, after my mother died, I moved away with my two young daughters. But throughout I persevered in my teaching career, ending up as a head teacher.
Many of my students came from underprivileged backgrounds and I was determined to see them succeed. That was the center of my life. I was in my 50s and had given up on relationships after many online dating failures. I was happy with that decision and wasn’t looking for anything romantic. It was safer and less heartbreaking that way.
Part of what drew Andy and I together was shared grief. My father was dying and Andy had lost his wife to endometrial cancer. When we met, we talked openly about how the experiences had affected us.
I felt an overwhelming sadness as he described his loss because, although the circumstances were different, I understood his pain. Over a few months our relationship grew: we met, decided to retire, moved in together and eventually married.
As time passed, however, I felt I was sharing the house with someone else. There were no photos of his first wife anywhere, but that just emphasized her presence. The décor reflected her taste of her, not mine. Chintzy wallpapers. Flowery curtains. A cold and forbidding dining room that had not been used in years.
As time passed, however, I felt I was sharing the house with someone else. There were no photos of his first wife anywhere, but that just emphasized her presence.
We even slept in their marital bed (albeit with a different mattress). Pride of place in the extensive gardens were the roses she had planted. Roses had always been my favorite flower, but they couldn’t be now, as they were hers. I was beginning to feel suffocated by her presence of her.
Our previous married lives had been very different. I had left a husband consumed with a gambling addiction; Andy had lost someone he still loved, whom he had been married to for 30 years. She hadn’t done anything wrong. I didn’t dislike her. I wanted to support him in his warm memories of his late wife.
But when he told me one night that she had been his soulmate, I felt such pain, as if I was a consolation prize. Second best. It was selfish, I know, feeling that way – she hadn’t done me any harm and she wasn’t even here – but I couldn’t talk myself out of feeling hurt.
I became obsessed with trying to find out what she was like and how different their relationship was to ours. I asked Andy’s friends and even the gardener about her. I knew Andy loved me, but did he love me just as much? Something had to change.
As we worked together through his grief, we both realized there were practical steps we could take. We set out on an ambitious program of redecorating and modernizing the house, spending time sharing our ideas on how we wanted it to look.
It became a fun activity, engaging our competitive spirits as we argued about light fittings, furniture and soft furnishings. Gradually, it became our home, a place in which we would both be happy to spend the future.
At the same time, I was being warmly received by Andy’s friends and family, who welcomed me into their lives. The weight of the past seemed to ease for both of us and I encouraged Andy to choose his favorite photograph of himself and his first wife of him. It is now displayed in our living room along with the rest of our family. She shouldn’t be hidden away like a secret that can’t be spoken about. She is apart of the person he is now. The man I love.
As time passed, we became caught up in the everyday business of our families and friends. We discovered that life is never really frozen in aspic. One of my daughters graduated, after Andy’s coaching, and became a social worker. The other became a qualified tutor and business owner in beauty therapy, with Andy supporting her studies. As our grandsons grew up, we both became proud and exhausted grandparents.
I realize now that I was wrong to fear the past, when the future has so much to offer us.
All of those experiences have drawn us closer together. And I realize now that I was wrong to fear the past, when the future has so much to offer us. If I could talk to my earlier self about her, four years ago, I would tell her: “It is all right to have loved someone else in the past. We can have more than one soulmate. What counts is celebrating the love and respect we have for each other.”
We are both busier than ever in our retirement and looking forward to what the future holds for us. And when time allows, I am planning my next steps as an author, with Andy by my side – though I was right about the baby and the mummy.
Tips for those in a relationship with a widow or widower
Be very aware of your boundaries. If you can’t handle photographs of the deceased in your bedroom or their belongings in your house, then you must communicate that or it will fester in your relationship. Contemplate what you can and can’t accept, then discuss that with your partner. Often it’s just that they haven’t realized the effect on you.
All new relationships require negotiating new ways of doing things, but a refusal to talk about the deceased person is not helpful. It’s possible to have more than one great love in life – ask anyone with more than one child. So, even if your partner still misses their first partner, it doesn’t mean they love you less. However, you do need to communicate your own feelings, which are equally valid.
Don’t be a consolation prize
When someone dies, they are usually placed on a pedestal. You can’t compete with that. If you feel that you can’t live up to their image, are constantly compared and found to be second best, or your partner doesn’t seem to be able to move on, then perhaps that’s a red flag that they’re not ready for a new relationship. However, you may just need patience.
“It’s important for the person who has been widowed to have had enough time and space from their bereavement to be in a mindset where they can relocate the partner who died to a place of memory, rather than presence,” says Catherine Betley from GriefChat. “That is one of the most difficult but important tasks of grief. We carry people we love with us, but they shouldn’t inhibit our opportunity to live life to the fullest extent we can.”