Widower Wednesday: Grief and Culture

Widower Wednesday

A recent post from a midwife on the Dating a Widower Facebook group got me thinking about how culture helps or hinders widowers from moving on. The story she posted goes as follows (posted here with permission):

Attended another beautiful homebirth yesterday. One of my Amish ladies. She had a baby girl, number nine and they named her Mary, in honor of her husband's father's wife, who is not his [birth] mother. His [birth] mother died a couple years ago and his Dad remarried this lady. They usually name their children after family members. The Dad said that he wanted to be sure that his Father's wife knew that they all loved and accepted her and that she was family. They wanted to honor her for loving his father and taking care of his younger siblings. She is too old to have children of her own so this is the only way her name would live on in their family. His father just remarried a few months ago and only courted her for a few months prior to that. The Dad said to me that while they all miss his mom and remember her fondly, in their culture when a man remarries she is not the "new wife" she is just "the wife", it's a very "the old has passed away, now we go on with life in the here and now" kind of society. I found their naming of their daughter to be such a touching gesture.

I don’t know much about the Amish culture but, like the GOW who posted it, I found this to be a very moving way of accepting the new wife into a family. In fact, I can’t think of a more tender way of letting a WOW know that she’s officially part of the family.

What culture that the widower grew up in can have a profound effect on when or if he starts a new chapter in his life. Some cultures, like the Amish example above, do a better job of helping members of the community with loss and moving on. Others don’t.

For example, Popular Western culture (as it’s defined by movies, books, news, music, etc.) doesn’t do a good job in my opinion of handling issues of grief, widowhood, and marriage. In books and movies, widowers are generally portrayed as lost forlorn souls who’s pain can only be fixed by a new woman. Despite their immense pain, they’re generally portrayed as good dating material because they’ve already opened up their heart to someone else and know how to express their true feelings.

Movies and books about widowers falling in love again make good entertainment, but they usually don’t translate well when we use them to influence real world relationships with widowers. Think of the opening scene in Sleepless in Seattle when the Tom Hank’s character calls in to a radio show and talks about how much he loves his late wife. He gets hundreds of letters from women who want to date him. In the real world how many people actually fall in love with someone because of how much the talk about their love for another person? No many, if any. Yet movies and other entertainment like Sleepless subtly influence the way some widowers and GOWs go about their relationship.

I grew up in a strongly religious community and as an adult have chosen to remain part of it. In my culture, we believe families can be together after this life and the bonds of marriage can transcend death. Though those beliefs weren’t the sole factor in my ability to move on and start a life with Marathon Girl, the values and beliefs I’ve chosen to follow did strongly influence my ability to forgive the late wife for her suicide and open my heart to someone else.

That’s not to say that all religious cultures do a good job of helping widowers transition to a new life or that more secular cultures don’t. The point is that a set of values and beliefs that a widower currently has or was raised with can strongly influence the way he, his family, and others grieve and moves on to the point that it may help or hinder any relationship he enters.

So as you’re dating and getting to know a widower better, keep in mind any cultural influences that may be holding him back or moving him forward. Understanding the ideas and philosophies of someone you’re dating are only part of getting to know someone but doing so might help you understand a widower’s words and actions as well as knowing whether or not he’s capable of starting a new life with you.