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Wives of Widowers

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When the Saints Go Marching In: Living in the Shadow of an Angel

by Tammy Fletcher

"Only the good die young."

No one understands this phrase better than the wife of a widower. Chances are she has heard it time and time again throughout her courtship and marriage. Friends, family members, and even her spouse may comment on the many virtues of his late wife and their marriage. This can escalate to the point of creating a saint-like image, and, to a new wife, it can become overwhelming. Why does this happen, and how can WOWs cope when living in the shadow of the late wife's seemingly flawless memory?

The dictionary defines the term "saint" as "a very holy person; one who is pure in heart and upright in life; person who has gone to heaven; one who is very humble, patient, etc." Whew! Those are some large shoes to fill for wives of widowers. We're all too human. We get tired, we gain weight, we get older, we argue with our husbands. We strive to be saintly, but some days we're just grateful to be in one piece! In other words, we're normal, everyday women, with good and bad qualities. There's nothing wrong with being human. Unless, that is, you come along after the loss of wife who could do no wrong.

When a person dies, especially at a young age, friends and family react in a variety of ways. Shock, profound grief, and even guilt are some of the feelings we share when death takes a loved one from us. We're thrown off kilter. We don't know what to say or think or do. Sometimes to deal with this barrage of emotion and confusion, we attempt to put the pieces together in a way that seems to help us understand or find comfort. It is very common for survivors to remember only the positive, endearing traits about the deceased. Even if they do remember the human side, they may only speak in glowing terms of the person. This revised memory can begin to take on a life of its own, and the person who has passed on becomes larger than life. Even those who barely knew her choke back tears during the funeral service, caught up in the emotion and human drama. One WOW succinctly described this as the "glamorization" of death. We're influenced by movies like "Sleepless in Seattle" and "Message in a Bottle," where the widower is a tragic figure and the late wife is nothing less than perfect.

Enter the future WOW. Chances are she's a pretty terrific person, or this gentleman who happens to be a widower wouldn't have fallen in love with her. As wonderful as she might be, she soon learns that, from what she sees and hears, his late wife was even better. In fact, it may seem as if she never did anything wrong, was a perfect wife, lover, mother, daughter-in-law, and that the best a new wife can ever hope to be is a replacement for this paragon of womanhood. She may see her love's home full of memories of his late wife — photographs, linens, furniture, and, in some cases, toiletries, clothing, displays from her funeral or even her ashes. His family or friends may be eager to share their stories of the late wife with her, along with the inevitable comments like, "I hope you can make him half as happy as she did." Or, "They were so blissful together. She's his angel, you know." Slowly, the newlywed WOW's self-esteem may start to plummet. She begins to see herself as an interloper, "second prize." Some WOWs have difficulty seeing the men they have married as their own husbands. It seems he will always "belong" to his late wife, and why not? She was a saint.

Or was she? A new phase in the grief process can begin when a widower commits to a new marriage. He is no longer primarily in the role of widower. He is a husband again — your husband. With time and support, he may begin to see his previous marriage more objectively. He can start to peel away some of the grief and guilt and see events from a different perspective. Objectively speaking, are any of us perfect — alive or dead? I promise you, his wife was no more a saint than you are. She was a human being, a living, breathing woman with faults and quirks of her own. The difference is that she is a memory now, and memories are subjective, fluid things — they can change over time as we grow and our perspectives evolve.

We're starting to understand the reasoning behind the "canonization" of the late wife, but how do we protect our own sense of self — or repair it if it has been eroded by one too many glowing eulogies? First, speak up. Find a quiet, private moment and tell your husband how you feel when he or someone else regales you with stories of his late wife. He may not know how it affects you, and, believe it or not, he may not even be aware he is doing it. It is not an easy discussion to initiate or to hear, but if you are drowning in a sea of Hallmark moments that don't include you, ask your husband for help.

Next, find some time for yourself and make a list of your positive qualities. You don't need to share it with anyone unless you choose to — this exercise is for you. It can be difficult at first, but we all have attributes that make us special. What are yours? What about you make you feel good? What drew your husband to you? Do you have a good sense of humor? A kind heart? A beautiful smile? Dig deep and find what makes you "saintly." If you get stuck, ask a good friend, family member, a professional counselor, or your husband to give you some ideas. You'll be pleasantly surprised.

Finally, remember that you are far more than the wife of a widower. Nurture yourself, explore your interests. It is easy to lose yourself when you feel you are sinking into someone else's life. Don't. Maintain your identity — don't try to take on the qualities of the late wife that everyone seems to admire. When my husband and I started dating, he told me he and his late wife never argued. In what I thought was his interest, I suppressed my tendency to hammer out an issue until it was resolved. I tried so hard to live up to the legacy of "never fighting" that I ended up angry all the time. My husband confronted me when he noticed I wasn't being myself, and I couldn't understand his anger. "Isn't that what you are used to, what you like?" I asked. "No! It was one of the most destructive things about my previous marriage. We didn't argue because we didn't communicate." What an eye-opener! That was the beginning of our recovery from "sainthood syndrome" and the first step down the road to our own, real, marriage.

YOU are your husband's angel. You are your own shining example. Take the comments and memorials for what they are worth to those who need to express them, but put the importance on your own feelings of self-worth and the love and happiness in your marriage. Talk it out with your husband, friends, or family. Understand that no one is perfect, although on the surface it can seem that way. Nourish yourself and pat yourself on the back for your good qualities.

When the saints go marching in, wave and let them pass on by — then get back to enjoying your life!