Bereaved partner finds love again

How soon is too soon to find love again after the death of a partner Bittersweet stories reveal agonising dilemma

PUBLISHED:

00:14 GMT, 26 September 2012

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UPDATED:

00:15 GMT, 26 September 2012

During the 18 months that my friend Josie was ill with uterine cancer, her husband Lawrence put his life on hold to care for her.

He was with Josie 24 hours a day in the final weeks, organising medication, washing her and helping her to the toilet. He made meals that she could swallow in her weakened condition, and spent many hours talking to her about the good things in their life.

Josie and Lawrence became far closer in those last weeks than they had been at many points during their 28 volatile years of marriage.

Riete Ord, right, said she couldn't imagine being in a new relationship after the sudden death of her husband but 14 months after his death she met Laurier Sparham, left, who she later married

New relationship: Riete Ord, right, said she couldn't imagine being in a new relationship after the sudden death of her husband but 14 months after his death she met Laurier Sparham, left, who she later married

When Josie died nine months ago at the age of 60, Lawrence talked wistfully of losing the love of his life. I watched him and their children Ben and Louisa, who are in their 20s, become a tight, supportive unit in the wake of Josie’s death.

Louisa, who had been especially close to her mother, cleaved to her father over the following weeks, spending a lot of time with him back at the family home in Sussex.

He has been my friend for 30 years, ever since we worked together on a provincial magazine. We partied and philosophised together, and after we married other people we went on family holidays together. Over the years I came to regard Josie — a fair-skinned, russet-haired beauty who was hugely vivacious and kind- spirited — as a dear friend. These days I look at photographs of her and feel an aching sadness, as well as disbelief that she is gone.

In the months after her death, Lawrence and I often emailed each other and spoke on the phone. I worried about him, knowing he needed my support even though I couldn’t physically be with him since I live in London and he in Devon.

Lawrence, now 69 and a publisher, told me often how important my support was to him.

Then two months ago I received an email from him announcing that he had fallen in love with a woman he had just met, and that she felt the same way about him. They were spending a lot of time at each others’ homes, he said, and contemplating a future together. I sensed that he was uneasy telling me this but I felt it would be hard to begrudge my friend his newfound happiness after everything he had been through.

He insisted his children, who live in Bristol and have absorbing careers in engineering and marketing, were fine with his new relationship — but I couldn’t help wondering if this was really so.

Riete said her first husband Robin was a fit, youthful man, pictured on their wedding day, before he had a heart attack in 1993 leaving her to bring up their two daughters

'Colossal shock': Riete said her first husband Robin was a fit, youthful man, pictured on their wedding day, before he had a heart attack in 1993 leaving her to bring up their two daughters

Louisa is 25 — exactly the age I was
when my mother died. I remember the confused mix of emotions I felt at
the time: the anger at her for leaving me; the grief that began with
numbness then turned to raw pain; the feeling I must protect her memory
and keep her alive in my mind.

After my mother’s death, my father
remained single. He was emotionally absent and he worked long, demanding
hours as a forensic psychiatrist. When I was alone I felt overwhelmed
with grief at the loss of my precious mother and the way she had always
bonded our family. The idea of someone taking her place would have been
unbearable to me.

All these feelings came flooding back
after I received Lawrence’s email, and I wondered how Louisa was coping
with her father’s heady excitement at falling in love.

Lawrence
has not asked for my thoughts on his new relationship, and I will not
offer them. But I do wonder if a fundamentally sensitive and empathetic
man has paused to imagine how it might feel for his children to see him
enraptured by someone new — at a time when their feelings are probably
still ragged, their emotions volatile.

'I felt overwhelmed with grief at the loss of my precious mother. The idea of someone taking her place would have been unbearable to me'

All of which raises the question of whether there’s a right time to find new love after bereavement. According to Dr David Devlin and psychotherapist Christine Webber of NetDoctor.co.uk, a new relationship may bring immediate comfort to a bereaved spouse or partner but it can also provoke profound guilt.

If a death has been sudden, the risk of
guilt and remorse is greater if the person then takes a new lover to
avoid their grief. Dr Devlin and Ms Webber suggest that a year is a
healthy length of time to wait before embarking on a new relationship.

Meanwhile, bereavement therapist Lynda Devenish stresses that parents must keep their children’s feelings at the front of their mind.

‘Even older children may feel the need to have their parent to themselves sometimes,’ she says.
Bereavement is a lot for children to manage emotionally, and though they want to see their parent happy, that may conflict with feelings of loyalty to their dead parent. Recovery can be a slow process, possibly taking years rather than months.’

When a new relationship becomes
serious, Ms Devenish says, a parent needs to tell their children, ask
how they feel about it and take account of their feelings.

Psychotherapist Christine Webber says a new relationship may bring immediate comfort to a bereaved partner but it can also provoke profound guilt

New love: Psychotherapist Christine Webber says a new relationship can bring immediate comfort to a bereaved partner but it can also provoke guilt

Ursula
Armstrong, now 29, was three when her mother died of a wasting disease
in 1986. Ursula and her father then lived with her grandmother, but her
father quickly started dating and remarried six years later.

Ursula recalls: ‘It wasn’t until my father remarried that I felt suddenly very bereft.

‘When
I was nine we moved out of my grandmother’s home to live with the new
stepmother. I felt I’d lost my mother and my grandmother. My father’s
new wife was cold and unkind. I no longer felt protected by him, and the
loss of my mother felt overwhelming.’ Ursula, who is a speech therapist
in Aberdeen, rarely sees her father and stepmother now, and still feels
angry at how her grief was misunderstood.

Family psychologist Lisa Doodson,
founder of the stepfamily support organisation Happy Steps, says it can
be incredibly difficult for bereaved children and young people to see a
parent getting on with their lives and being able to love another
partner.

‘There are no hard
and fast rules for bereaved parents about moving on, but the general
advice is to take things slowly,’ she says.

‘Children of all ages, even young
adults, can feel fear and anger at the idea that their dead parent is
being replaced. Teenagers are often less willing to adapt to changes,
and may feel in competition for the parent they see as theirs.’

The
bereaved partner can also suffer if they move on too quickly, as
Wendy Harman, 59, knows only too well. A teacher, she was happily
married to Malcolm Allen, another teacher, until he died in 1982, aged
62, from a ruptured aneurysm. They had three children — then aged just
one, five and seven.

Wendy started dating 18 months after Malcolm’s death, and married Mark, a freelance illustrator, five years later. The family moved to South London, and Wendy’s parents were happy that she was making a new start in life.

But Wendy says now: ‘I hadn’t grieved properly. I’d missed being married and thought a new marriage would get me over the loss.

'There are no hard and fast rules for bereaved parents about moving on, but the general advice is to take things slowly'

However, Mark and I weren’t compatible, and our relationship wasn’t the “cure” I’d hoped it might be.

‘We
were arguing, and when I went into therapy I realised I hadn’t grieved
for Malcolm. It was really him I missed, not the fact of being married.’
She and Mark divorced, and Wendy is now single and content with her
life.

Of course there are enormous sensitivities around the issue of falling in love again after the loss of a partner, and for many it’s an experience that proves to be fraught with problems.

But it can work — as Riete Ord discovered after the death of her husband Robin.

He was just 40 when he had a fatal heart attack in 1993, leaving film-maker Riete to bring up their two daughters, Saskia, then four, and Alex, three. Riete says: ‘Robin’s death was a colossal shock and impossible to believe at first. I felt numb. He was a fit, youthful man, so I had done none of the mental preparation I would have done if he’d been ill before his death.

‘We hadn’t talked about how we envisaged life for the other if one of us died. As the reality kicked in, I was in pieces.

‘I cried night after night when the children were asleep, and felt very scared when I realised how much I’d depended on Robin to cope with the practicalities.

‘I missed him like hell every single minute.’ Riete thinks she wouldn’t have coped at all if it were not for her children. ‘I knew I had to keep going for them.’ she says.

Keep dead parent 'alive': Riete's advice is to create an environment where the children can ask questions. 'Robin is part of our everyday conversation'

Keep dead parent 'alive': Riete's advice is to create an environment where the children can ask questions. 'Robin is part of our everyday conversation'

‘They had been very close to Robin and missed him dreadfully. Saskia wanted me all to herself, and Alex would shout and scream that she didn’t want me, she wanted her daddy. Thank goodness I had wonderful friends who were there for me when I needed them.’ Riete, now 57 and living in North London, says she couldn’t imagine being in a new relationship back then. However, 14 months after Robin’s death she met photographer Laurie Sparham, then 42, at a friend’s wedding in Ireland.

She recalls: ‘Laurie had just broken up with a girlfriend and he knew I was recently bereaved, so neither of us was in a hurry to have an intimate relationship.

‘The girls were still very young and needed me, so when we started seeing each other Laurie would come round after they were in bed.’

There was no spare money for babysitters or meals out, so Riete and Laurie got to know each other at her home. As time passed, he started visiting earlier, often in time for a family supper and to read a bedtime story to the girls.

'They worried that things would change,
so we reassured them they were the most important thing of all to us –
but we also let them know that Laurie and I wanted to be together.’

His visits became more frequent as
they got to know him. Riete says: ‘When they realised Laurie and I were
together, they tried to put him off by saying things like: “Mummy never
changes the sheets” but it was all very light-hearted.

‘Laurie
and I kept separate flats, and we were both clear from the start that
he should not try to be a father figure to my daughters.

‘When he ticked them off, they’d say things like “You’re not my blood” and he’d say, “No I’m not.”’

Despite getting on well with him, the children were still shocked when Laurie and their mum got married eight years into their relationship. Riete says: ‘They worried that things would change, so we reassured them they were the most important thing of all to us — but we also let them know that Laurie and I wanted to be together.’

So what advice would she offer to others in her position

‘Create an environment where the children can ask questions — and keep the dead parent “alive”’, she says. ‘Robin is part of our everyday conversations — we talk about him all the time.

‘The girls are very attached to Laurie now but they have always been the bottom-line. If they’d been really unhappy about Laurie, our relationship wouldn’t have worked.’

Written by Angela Neustatter, the author of A Home For The Heart.

Some names have been changed.