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The Misunderstood Grief of a Person Whose Spouse Died by Suicide

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A few weeks ago I attended the LA chapter of the National Survivors After Suicide Loss Day. I spoke on a general panel about loss to suicide and co-facilitated a break-out group for those who have lost partners/spouses.

It took me back to the very first year I attended, just about six months after my late husband’s suicide. I remember being so grateful to be in a room who had experienced my specific loss because even just six months in, people were treating the loss of my husband as something that would be easier to move on from. I would find love again. My life wasn’t
over. I was still young. It’s funny the things people say. Sad, but also sickly funny.

I remember thinking I would never tell a mother she would move on from losing her child. Never tell a sibling they could get another brother or sister.  Wouldn’t tell someone to adopt a random older person to act as their parent.

Yet, somehow, that’s exactly what I experienced. It was clear in the months after my late husband’s death – the questions about if I was ready for a set up or a profile. As if a date would help me forget that my husband was dead.

No, I hadn’t lost a child. I hadn’t lost a parent. Or a sibling. Someone who could never be replaced.

It appeared that partner/spousal death was somehow treated as “less than” – and this was once again confirmed in the group I recently co-facilitated.

With a spouse or a partner or a “just” a girlfriend or boyfriend (and really, they almost get the shortest end of the stick. Of course boyfriends and girlfriends are totally replaceable…), it is expected that the pain ends when you replace the person you lost. And that is the problem. People actually think your lost love can be replaced. I can’t tell you how angry this has made me over the years.

A few weeks after my husband’s death, I was visiting my sister. I spent a ton of time with my sister and her kids in the months after my loss. Something about being with her babies just made life seem worth living. One day I was coming back from a walk with my niece, who was asleep in her stroller. A neighbor came over and told me how sorry she was.  And then this:

“But Kate, you are 28. You weren’t married that long.  You will bounce back. Just get out there again. Plenty of guys would want to take you out.”

Because being with the girl who cried at anything and everything, couldn’t hold down food and whose hair was falling out due to stress was such a hot ticket? Forget about the fact she lost the person she relied on and loved the most? Minor detail, I know.

It mainly hurt because to me, your partner/spouse is the person who represents the most intimate of relationships. The chosen relationship.

Usually, and because as a third party reproductive attorney I know there are exceptions, but usually you don’t (and can’t) pick your parents. Or your siblings. Or your children. Family is stuck together. That’s the beauty and the curse. And that’s why nobody would ever expect you to forget about these amazing people in your life.

When I committed myself to my late husband and he committed himself to me, long before our actual marriage even, it wasn’t because we had to love each other because of blood line. It was because we made a decision that we wanted to walk this life together – not because we had to. Because we wanted to. The amazing, the heartbreaking, the highs and lows and everything in between. Our love was our bond.

But so many people expect widows and widowers to forget. To move on. To stop talking about them. To pretend those chapters of our life didn’t ever exist. The ghost makes so many people uncomfortable. I had men I was dating in the years after tell me “not to mention” my marriage or my husband’s death to friends or family. Not that I ever used it as an opening line but when people asked why I left Colorado, I was supposed to just make up a story?

I refused. Any of it. All of it. It’s tricky of course. It makes people uncomfortable sometimes. I’m remarried now to a man who never once has asked me to forget about my past. Never once told me my late husband needs to be excised from my life. It takes a special person to be open to being with someone who has loved and lost at such a deep level. I know that. And I try to be as respectful I can be – but I can’t pretend my life before did not exist. I can’t pretend I don’t think about my late husband. A lot. That I still say prayers to him – that I thank him for our time together and wonder if he is proud of the life I have made for myself.

Because we didn’t have children together, people also just expect me to forget. To sweep it under the rug. I have no ties to him, so why should I care so much? Because I do have ties to him. I consider his family my family. I still am in contact with his family. And I am grateful for that. I relish the thought of being able to introduce his family to my children in person one day – not just through email and social media.

The bottom line, I think, is it all just makes other people uncomfortable. I would never ask you to hide your past – your chapters of your life that made you, well, you. So please don’t do that to me or any other widows and widowers. If we are lucky enough to find love again, it’s because our hearts are big enough for space to be shared. A new relationship, a
remarriage doesn’t change what once was.

Someday, my children will be old enough to hear my story. To know I was married before.  Know there was a man, before their father, whom I loved with my whole heart. Who died tragically. Whose death left my heart and soul battered and broken. And they will know their father took those broken pieces and put them back together with his own love and understanding. But they will also know that scars remain. And scars are a reminder of what I lost.

I guess what I want people to understand is that remembering my late husband, writing about him/us, and still loving him doesn’t mean I am not present in my life now. Doesn’t mean I don’t love my husband and kids with my whole heart. Doesn’t mean I don’t respect my husband and our marriage.

Quite the opposite, actually. It means I have been able to heal. To open myself up to the possibility of great love again. And to a man completely separate and apart from my late husband.

Not many people can say they have had one great love, let alone two. But I have.  And I do my best to honor both of them every single day.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

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Thinkstock photo by Freezelight

Originally published: January 19, 2017
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