Coping with Changed Relationships After the Death of Your Spouse
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“True friends get their measure, over time, in their effect on you.”—Philip Yancey
After a significant loss, you are a different person. A part of you is forever changed, and the emotional needs you have are also different. Depending on the status of your interpersonal relationships with family and friends before your loss, you may be surprised when you discover less-than-supportive ties.
When I talked with widows for my book, A Widow’s Guide to Healing: Gentle Support and Advice for the First 5 Years (Sourcebooks, 2015), I found that some widows had faced hostility, anger, rejection, and spitefulness on the part of in-laws and other relatives. Relationships with in-laws (parents, sisters-in-law, etc.) can be tricky and, at times, downright complex and stressful. This change in your relationship is also considered a loss. It is typically labeled as a “secondary loss,” meaning the death is the primary loss. The change in your social and/or family relationship is secondary because it happened as a result of your primary loss.
When you lose a partner/spouse, although you may believe everything was peaceful and tranquil between you and your loved one’s family or relatives, the death of their loved one can turn things upside down for all of you. One thing to keep in mind is that your partner’s parents, siblings, and children are also mourning a significant loss. And out of this mourning, fears and anxieties may arise. And those fears and anxieties may be real or simply imagined.
In my book, Megan (not her real name) shares that she was 55 when she was widowed after 33 years of marriage. “My brother-in-law and sister-in-law were initially very fearful that I would move on and they would no longer be a part of my life,” Megan reported. “I had to assure them that they would always be a part of my family.”
Not all widows are as fortunate as Megan, however. Some find they are no longer invited to family events. Alexa (also not her real name), now 38, was widowed several years ago after four years of marriage. “My heart still sinks whenever I see photos on Facebook of a family event I wasn’t aware of,” Alexa now reports. “I still see part of my husband in them. Part of it is that his brothers and their children look like him. But for me, not being included is difficult. I wonder what he would think of this, and it’s hard not to take it personally.”
Although this may sound harsh, some families treat the death of a family member the same as a divorce, and they may no longer desire to have a relationship with you. This can come about for several reasons. First, family may not have liked you when you got married, but they tolerated you because you were the partner/spouse—but they might not have liked anyone their loved one married. Second, the family may believe that the marriage was a misguided one and that their loved one should not have married you. And third, and this may be true if your partner/spouse had children before the relationship he or she had with you, the family may resent you for simply being part of the family.
You will most likely be shocked by the deterioration of some relationships you thought were stable and enduring. You may find that relationships with family and friends can become tense and strained in the immediate aftermath of the funeral. For example, a friendship with a sister-in-law that was such a source of comfort and enjoyment while your loved one was alive may sour. Such souring of a once-comfortable relationship may be related to the role of children, how finances (such as an estate or an inheritance) are handled, or when you begin dating again. However, to you, the deterioration or loss of a relationship may seem so unfair since it was not a divorce and it’s nothing you did wrong. But the loss of relationships and friendships from both within and outside the family may intensify as time goes on.
Managing and coping with changed relationships
If you find that some of your relationships become fractured, be aware that your actions may not heal these breaks. Be very careful not to overreact to the signs of those deteriorating relationships. Although it is not fair that your loved one died, still overreacting will generate an intense amount of stress, and no one will be coping well with either the death or the stress.
Try to look at your friends’/family’s excuses for what they are: excuses. Once you start reading more into them, you will develop anxiety. You may be extremely sensitive to the slights, the veiled hostilities, and outright cruel remarks that may come your way, and you may have every right to be sensitive and easily hurt, but managing your own stress is also a priority. You have to look at the risks you take when confronting them. These risks include further alienating yourself from them, feeling a sense of panic and then extreme depression when they don’t respond with open arms, and finally, melting in a pool of tears because you got your hopes up only to be let down.
At the end of the day, you are alone with your emotions. The bereaved may find it helpful to join a support group or begin therapy. Others may find any type of exercise (yoga, running, or biking) a good source of stress relief. You know that this is a type of distraction, but it is far healthier than ruminating.
Grief is fluid, and the path to healing is not linear. After death, you do not know what remains. You may hope for certain things to occur and for people to reach out to you, but you don’t know exactly what will transpire. This, however, is certain—you will be hurt all over again. You will feel wounded and want to give up, but as soon as you realize this, too, is part of the grief cycle, you will be OK. If I had accepted this earlier, I think it would have lessened the pain.
Your loved one’s death will result in many losses, and not having the same type of relationship with your friends and family is one of those losses. When you try to predict the future and envision all holidays for the rest of your life spent alone, you will only generate panic and create further anxiety. Remember, you have survived the loss of your loved one, and you can make it through whatever happens today.
Although this might seem unfair and harsh, you may need to rely on a new support person (although not someone who is part of your loved one’s family if that’s where the friction started). Call on a friend or a counselor or a religious leader. This should be someone whom you trust but who doesn’t judge you. Sometimes—we find this is very often true—other widows are willing to step into this role. It is OK to send out an e-mail, even if you feel it is reaching a bit, to someone you haven’t been close to and ask to meet for coffee. Many widows (even those who are remarried) do not forget those first birthdays and anniversaries, and they often can offer insight and humor.
One of my favorite authors and Solo Moms, Anne Lamott, writes in her book, Help, Thanks, Wow (Riverhead Books, 2012), “Domestic pain can be searing, and it is usually what does us in. It’s almost indigestible; death, divorce, old age, drugs; brain-damaged children, violence, senility, unfaithfulness. Good luck figuring it out. It unfolds, and you experience it, and it is so horrible and endless that you could almost give up a dozen times. But grace can be the experience of a second wind, when even though what you want is clarity and resolution, what you get is stamina and poignancy and the strength to hang on.”
To maintain your mental health and reduce further anxiety, appropriate coping is the key. This means you need to be realistic and to go with only what you know for certain. Don’t assume you are not invited to an event because of the loss or that you did something wrong. If you do find out you weren’t asked, let someone know you wish to be included in the future, but keep it brief and simple. During these types of difficult conversations, often undesirable behavior arises (on both sides), and it can easily fuel an angry thought. Try sticking with the facts, mainly asking about the event and wondering if you can go. If it is truly an oversight, you’ll know right away. Don’t try to force your way into a closed door. It may well be that your loved one’s family does not realize how important maintaining a close connection is for you.
Developing self-awareness is also important. If you are a complainer or if you are so angry or depressed you can’t stop talking about your misery, your friends and relatives may decide that you are too emotional and unstable to be around. As a result, they will avoid you. No longer will you be invited to all the birthday parties. Although it may be difficult to keep your thoughts and feelings to yourself, in order for you to maintain your mental health, reduce further anxiety, and maintain friendly relationships with others, being realistic and acknowledging only what you know for certain will help. Don’t assume you are not invited to an event because you are no longer married.
Depending on where you are in the stages of grief, you may be starting to process your prior conversations with others. In particular, you may be ruminating over comments you find unsettling. You may be thinking, Once time passes, his brother will apologize. Unfortunately, some people may never apologize to you. You are hurt, and the absence of their apology may intensify the pain. There are no words coming in the form of “I’m sorry.” You will need to decide how to handle this.
However, you have options. Sometimes the bereaved enter therapy just to “talk and sort out” this kind of hurt with a neutral third party. Or you can choose to talk with a family member about another family member, but this approach has risks, since your words may get passed on to the person you are talking about. Chaos will ensue if your words get passed around the family. This could well result in further alienation from some family members. As a third alternative, you could choose to completely disengage from the troublesome. If you do so in a peaceful manner, there will be no confrontation. It can be viewed by you and others as just a byproduct of the death of your loved one. In other words, your spouse’s death brings to end some relationships that were meaningful to you. A final alternative is that you could confront the person with whom you have a conflict, but be careful, as this may not turn out the way you envision and instead can backfire and end the relationship for good.
Keep in mind that healing can take time, especially since it is tied to such a significant death. Mark Nepo offers this viewpoint in The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have (Conari Press, 2000): “One of the most difficult things about healing from being hurt by others is how to put wounds to rest when those who have hurt us will not give air to the wound, will not admit to their part in causing the pain.”
If you are waiting for someone to admit his or her wrongdoings, you may be even more hurt. There are some people who will not admit their faults. Your healing is too valuable to put into the hands of a less-than-noble person. Surround yourself with supportive and nurturing individuals. This will aid in your healing.
Kristin Meekhof, ESME’s Bereavement Resource Guide, is the coauthor of A Widow’s Guide to Healing: Gentle Support and Advice for the First 5 Years. A licensed social worker and daughter of a Solo Mom, Meekhof became a widow in 2007 when her husband died from cancer.
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