Sex & Relationships

Ask Joan: Dating a Grieving Widow

When can you expect someone to get over grieving a deceased spouse? 

A reader asks:

When can you expect someone to get over grieving a deceased spouse?

I’m a 72-year-old man, twice divorced, single for the past decade. For four months, I’ve been dating a lovely 68-year-old woman whose husband died three years ago. Our relationship turned sexual very quickly — a surprise to us both — and has been immensely satisfying in and out of bed. The problem is that I think she’s still in love with her dead husband!

I feel like I’m competing with a ghost.

I met her at a salsa dance class, and we clicked. We have similar views and enjoy many of the same activities. Mostly we get along great, and we love spending time together. But occasionally when we’re together, she stares away and spaces out, and I can’t reach her. I don’t want to invade her privacy by asking her what’s wrong if she doesn’t offer it willingly. Yet part of me wants to say, “Hey! I’m right here! Hello?” At times her eyes mist and she runs to the bathroom. She returns with red eyes.

Dating Mistake

I made the mistake of surprising her on her birthday by whisking her away to a romantic bed and breakfast inn in a scenic area about an hour away. She burst into tears when we pulled into the B&B — this was where she and her husband celebrated special holidays! How was I to know that?

I know she was very much in love with her husband. Photos of the two of them are all over her house. Her husband designed jewelry, and she always wears at least two pieces that he made. When will it be time to put the photos and jewelry away? I feel like I’m competing with a ghost. Is it too much to ask that she prioritize our relationship now?

-Second Fiddle to Deceased Spouse

Joan responds:

I understand your struggle. You’re dating a woman who fits with you in many ways, and you’re invested in this new relationship. Yet you feel you’re walking on eggshells, not knowing when you’ll unintentionally do the wrong thing, not knowing how to handle her retreats into her own thoughts and sadness.

Realize that two seemingly contradictory things are happening: she’s still grieving her deceased husband and she’s forming a new emotional connection with you.

Grief and New Relationships

Grief isn’t finite. It doesn’t just end, leaving the griever to pick herself up and start fresh with a new person. She will always carry that love. She will likely continue to dip in and out of grief. With time and new experiences, grief becomes less severe, less overwhelming, and strikes less often. Grief counseling helps. Even early in this process, she can bring a new person — you — into her life. She can like you, enjoy you, even love you.

You’ll need patience and understanding. You are not in competition with her deceased husband. You only hurt yourself and the relationship by thinking that you are. You are also not in competition with her memories, photos, jewelry, or experiences. Let these be a part of her that you can accept.

I have personal experience here. My beloved husband Robert Rice (read our story in Better Than I Ever Expected: Straight Talk about Sex After Sixty) was an artist. He died in 2008. Every wall of my house displays his paintings. The paintings and the memories that go with them are a part of me. I’m sure your lover has similar feelings about the jewelry her husband made for her. I would never date someone who expected me to take the paintings down if we got involved. Don’t expect her to pack up the jewelry.

Handling her Grief

What do you do when she spaces out or runs off with tears in her eyes? Do you respect her privacy by saying nothing, or show that you can be understanding by asking questions? There’s no one right way to do this. It depends on what she needs and is willing to share, and how much she trusts you. I suggest you choose a time when you’re happy and comfortable together, and say something like this:

“I love the way our relationship is growing, and I want to be a person you can confide in. At times you seem sad or distant. I am reluctant to push you by asking questions. How would you like me to treat you during those times? Leave you alone? Give you a hug? Ask if you’re comfortable sharing what you’re experiencing? Help me know what you need at those times.”

Your idea of a destination birthday getaway was lovely. The problem was not consulting her first. As you said, how could you know which places or experiences already belong to her and her husband? This doesn’t have to be a minefield if you discuss plans before making them. No surprises.

I highly recommend that you read Sex After Grief: Navigating Your Sexuality After Losing Your Beloved. Though written primarily for grievers themselves, there’s a lot you can learn about what she is going through, along with gentle ways to ask her questions. I even wrote a chapter for you: “For Non-Grievers Who Want to Date Us.”

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Joan Price has been Senior Planet’s “Sex at Our Age” columnist since 2014. She is the author of four self-help books about senior sex, including her award winners: “Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud about Senior Sex” and “Sex after Grief: Navigating Your Sexuality after Losing Your Beloved.” Visit Joan’s website and blog for senior sex news, views, tips, and sex toy reviews from a senior perspective. Subscribe to Joan’s free, monthly newsletter.



6 responses to “Ask Joan: Dating a Grieving Widow

  1. I am a widower, in a relationship with a widow. We Live Apart Together. My home is replete with memorabilia of my deceased wife. My partner’s is full of wonderful reminders of her beloved husband. Neither of us finds these loving memories to threaten our own happy relationship. In fact, we often discuss our former spouses, and share tales about what made them so special to us. Each of us will always grieve our loss. And we both recognize that we are not in competition with those who preceded us.

  2. I love your advice, Joan. Our fear of grief and its overwhelming nature keeps a lot of us from allowing ourselves to feel it, and eventually move through it.
    I am curious if the advice seeker truly feels like he is competing with the woman’s late husband, or if it’s the space her grief currently occupies that is threatening his sense of security in the relationship. I like how you contextualized her mementos and her grief as things a partner could learn about and value.

  3. Approaching two years since my only wife’s death, I thought your response was spot on. Everyone experiences grief differently because every relationship is unique. Psychology experts say the death of a spouse is the most difficult trauma most people experience. Building a new life is not easy.

  4. Disagree. I had a three-year relationship with a grieving widower also widowed three years when we began. Whenever we got really close he would punish me because he felt guilty by diminishing me and/or our relationship by explicit comparison to her and their relationship. I finally said “If I can never measure up and you can never love me as much, let me go.” He said he’d made that clear from the beginning, which he of course hadn’t. If you can’t live fully don’t steal another’s heart who can.

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