I couldn’t stop comparing myself to my husband’s late wife

One evening, late at night, filled with a bottle or two of wine, we quarreled over something taken from Andy’s work. Sociologist Harvey Sacks had said that when most people hear the phrase “The child cried; the mother picked it up”, they would assume that the woman involved was the child’s mother. I said it was obvious; Andy claimed that there was nothing in the phrase that none of us wanted to give up. In the middle of the laughter storms, at four in the morning, we agreed not to agree.

My first marriage ended badly and after my mother died, I moved away with my two young daughters. But all the while, I persevered in my teaching career and ended up as principal.

Many of my students came from underprivileged backgrounds and I was determined to see them succeed. It was the center of my life. I was in my 50s and had given up relationships after many failures with online dating. I was happy with that decision and was not looking for something romantic. It was safer and less heartbreaking that way.

Part of what drew Andy and I together was shared grief. My father was dying and Andy had lost his wife to uterine cancer. When we met, we talked openly about how the experiences had affected us.

I felt an overwhelming sadness when he described his loss, because even though the circumstances were different, I understood his pain. For a few months, our relationship grew: we met, decided to retire, moved in, and eventually married.

But over time, I felt that I shared the house with someone else. There were no pictures of his first wife anywhere, but that only emphasized her presence. The decor reflected her taste, not mine. Chintzy wallpaper. Floral curtains. A cold and forbidding dining room that had not been used for several years.

But over time, I felt that I shared the house with someone else. There were no pictures of his first wife anywhere, but that only emphasized her presence.

We even slept in their matrimonial bed (albeit with a different mattress). A pride in the vast gardens were the roses she had planted. Roses had always been my favorite flower, but they could not be now, because they were hers. I began to feel suffocated by her presence.

Our previously married lives had been very different. I had left a man consumed by a gambling addiction; Andy had lost someone he still loved, whom he had been married to for 30 years. She had done nothing wrong. He did not dislike her. I wanted to support him in his warm memories of his deceased wife.

But when he told me one evening that she had been his soulmate, I felt such pain, as if I were a consolation prize. Next best. It was selfish, I know, to feel that way – she had not hurt me and she was not even here – but I could not make myself feel hurt.


I became obsessed with trying to find out what she was like and how different their relationship was from ours. I asked Andy’s friends and even the gardener about her. I knew Andy loved me, but did he love me as much? Something has to change.

As we worked together through his grief, we both realized that there were practical steps we could take. We embarked on an ambitious program to renovate and modernize the house, and spent time sharing our ideas of what we wanted it to look like.

It was a fun activity that engaged our competitive spirit when we argued about fixtures, furniture and soft furnishings. Gradually it became our home, a place where we would both be happy to spend the future.

At the same time, I was warmly received by Andy’s friends and family, who welcomed me into their lives. The weight of the past seemed light to both of us and I encouraged Andy to choose his favorite photo of himself and his first wife. It is now displayed in our living room with the rest of our family. She should not be hidden away as a secret that can not be talked about. She’s part of the person he is now. The man I love.

As time went on, we became stuck in the everyday life of our families and friends. We discovered that life is never really frozen in aspic. One of my daughters graduated, after Andy’s coaching, and became a social worker. The other became a qualified supervisor and entrepreneur in beauty therapy, with Andy as support for her studies. When our grandchildren grew up, we both became proud and exhausted grandparents.

I now realize that I was wrong when I feared the past, when the future has so much to offer us.

All these experiences have brought us closer together. And I now realize that I was wrong when I feared the past, when the future has so much to offer us. If I could talk to my former self, four years ago, I would say to her, “It’s okay to have loved someone else before. We can have more than one soulmate. What counts is celebrating the love and respect we have. For eachother.”

We are both harder working than ever when we retire and look forward to what the future has to offer. And when time allows, I plan my next steps as a writer, with Andy by my side – even if I was right about the child and the mother.

Tips for you who have a relationship with a widow or widower

Set boundaries

Be very aware of your boundaries. If you can not handle photographs of the deceased in your bedroom or their belongings in your house, you need to communicate it, otherwise it will spice up your relationship. Think about what you can and cannot accept and then discuss it with your partner. Often it’s just that they have not realized the effect on you.


All new relationships require you to negotiate new ways of doing things, but a refusal to talk about the deceased is not helpful. It is possible to have more than one great love in life – ask anyone with more than one child. So even if your partner still misses their first partner, it does not mean that they love you less. But you have to communicate your own feelings, which are equally valid.

Do not be a consolation prize

When someone dies, they are usually placed on a pedestal. You can not compete with that. If you feel that you can not live up to their image, are constantly compared and considered the second best, or your partner does not seem to be able to move on, then maybe it is a red flag that they are not ready for a new relationship. But you may just need to be patient.


“It is important for the person who has become a widow to have had enough time and space from their grief to be in a mindset where they can move the partner who died to a memorial site, rather than presence,” said Catherine Betley of GriefChat. It is one of the most difficult but important tasks of grief. We carry with us people we love, but they should not hamper our ability to live life to the extent we can. “

The narrators (Bloodhound Books) by Caron McKinley is out now.

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