Death Is Not The End (Of Your Problems)
Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer "radical empathy" and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.
Today the Sugars are talking about death — specifically, problems that arise in relationships after someone else has died.
They hear from a woman engaged to a widower. She says she has a great relationship with her fiancé; the problem is with the mother of this man's late wife. The mother can't seem to move on. For example, she often brings flowers to their house "in memorial to her daughter."
How do you get her to stop pushing things into the past, while still being sensitive to her grief?
Next, they hear from a married woman who had an affair. She just found out the man she had an affair with has died, but she can't share her grief with anyone.
I have been so blessed to find the most compassionate, loving, thoughtful, sexy, amazing man who loves me as much as I love and adore him. We're engaged to be married. We are incredibly happy together and have loved making a home with our three dogs.
My fiancé is a widower, and while he has been through an incredible heartache, he has survived and is ready to move forward with his life.
Our problem? My fiancé's late wife's family — specifically, her mother. She seems to feel that if I take her son-in-law away, the reality of her daughter's death will land. I've attended family weddings, holidays and other gatherings to support my fiancé, and while I know his family likes me, it's understandable that they've had a difficult time getting to know me.
We are constantly bombarded with reminders of my fiancé's late wife, which is bothersome to him and agitates me. His late wife's mother regularly delivers flowers to our house in memorial to her daughter, and there are constant Facebook posts and other such things done without warning. She has made comments to me suggesting that I am essentially the "other woman." This is frustrating and offensive, as my fiancé has chosen to move forward with his life and has chosen me as his partner.
My fiancé does not feel he can say anything about this out of respect for a mother that lost her daughter. I certainly feel that I have no place in it. However, we spend so much of our time discussing this. It's difficult to move forward when he keeps being pushed into the past. We've had much conversation and contemplation, and a fair amount of tears, but I want to find a solution that will satisfy both of us. Some fresh thoughts would be much appreciated.
The Widower's Fiancé
Steve Almond: Widower's Fiancé, this mother is grieving her daughter, and she's taking out her anger on you. That's not fair. But it's also all she can do to express her grief, rage and bewilderment at this event.
I think this is something that's ramping up around the engagement and the wedding, and I think it will dissipate when you're married. But in the meantime, I think you may want to talk with a counselor about this issue before you get married, because it's not just the mother who might have unrequited feelings that need to be brought into the light.
Cheryl Strayed: When my mother died, my stepfather quickly began dating another woman. It was excruciatingly painful to me, because I felt like my mother was being replaced. Even though my stepfather said, "Of course she's not being replaced. I love your mother and I always will." I told him, "I know that. But you can find another wife. And I can't find another mother."
Your fiancé's mother-in-law feels that you are replacing her daughter, and it's crushing her. I think you should encourage your fiancé to talk to her. I think there's something about the two of them coming together and having an honest conversation, and enlisting the mother-in-law to help him through his grief while he helps her through hers.
Years ago, I had an affair with a man I used to work with, but who lived in a different city. We were both married but always felt an attraction to each other. I knew him before I met my husband. When work brought him to town, we'd meet up for an evening, and we talked often by phone. You wouldn't describe it as torrid. We never spoke of leaving our spouses. We had an easy connection that, over time, mellowed into a long-distance love and remained a cherished, secret, friendship. He was blunt and honest, a coach when I needed to take risks in my life and career. We talked frequently but could go weeks between calls and fall right into comfortable conversation.
Four months ago, he passed away unexpectedly. I found out weeks afterwards. After a few calls to his office went unreturned, I emailed his office account and received a short reply from his secretary with a copy of his obituary. I was shocked, completely unprepared and unable to react out loud. Nobody in my life, or his, knew of our relationship, and I have no one to talk to or cry with, no way to process it. I don't even know what happened. To my knowledge, his wife and family know nothing of me, and that's how it must stay.
But I am alone in this. His death feels like it didn't happen, though it hits me at odd times. I catch myself dialing his number. I hear a certain song and stifle a sob. I've kept my feelings hidden, but my husband tells me I've been tossing and turning at night. How do I manage this secret grief? How do I mourn someone who wasn't supposed to be mine?
Cheryl: It's unique to have a relationship that's separate from everything and everyone else in your life. I think you would benefit from seeing a grief counselor, where you can openly share your feelings about the relationship without revealing the affair to your spouse or anyone in your dead lover's life. You're probably always going to feel a little bit unresolved about this relationship, but there are ways for you to at least come to some peace.
Steve: I think there's some significance to the fact that you're tossing and turning in your marital bed, because there's also the reality that you went outside of the marriage to find something that wasn't in your marriage. I'm not suggesting that you have to talk about this with your husband, but you do have to sort out really complicated feelings, and you should not have to be alone in this.
You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the full episode to hear more quick takes on a variety of dilemmas.
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