How To Move Forward After Becoming A Widow: Reviewing Myself As A Spouse

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Learning how to move forward after becoming a widow was a difficult situation to find myself in, especially given the relationship my husband and I had.

It's a predicament no spouse ever wants to consider, yet one that we may have to inevitably face as time marches on.

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Moving forward after becoming a widow is not an easy process, and it brings to light many of your own shortcomings.

Ralph and I had a really good marriage. It wasn’t that we were perfect people, or that we never fought, or that we were always happy with one another — because we weren’t.

But generally speaking, for more than 40 years, our marriage was strong, loving, supportive, easy, and wonderful. Yet, several months after Ralph died, I found myself reviewing my behavior over the four decades as his spouse.

I didn’t fail him in any major way. But upon sober reflection, my garden-variety shortfalls came vividly into view and it wasn’t fun to see them.

My diary entry reads:

“Accepting my many failures in the marriage and how I wish I had been different/better… When you have a wonderful person as your husband, as Ralph was, I really wish I had never failed him in any way. But I did in many ways, or at least came up somewhat short.”

My shortfalls fell into two major categories:

  • Regrets about incomplete communications regarding his death
  • Regrets about my shortcomings as a person

As for the former, my attitude about discussing his impending death fell under the sway of what I had known at the time was an irrational hope that if we didn’t talk about his death, then maybe it would never happen.

Yet, Ralph had sometimes wanted to talk with me about how he saw his life and about death, and these topics were uncomfortable for me.

I didn’t want him to die, period.

And somehow, it seemed if he reminisced over his life that meant he was getting close to dying... Which wasn’t OK with me.

Eleven months after his death, it became clear I'd failed him this way and I still regret that I didn’t provide a safe sounding board for him.

Associated with this, Ralph wanted me to know where important documents were filed and how he managed certain ongoing bookkeeping matters. When he had tried to talk about this, my attitude had been: “Yeah, yeah, I’ll figure it out somehow.”

I allowed him to give me a cursory tour of his desk files, but frankly, I wasn’t paying much attention. The whole matter nauseated me, and I didn’t want to deal with it.

The only thing I could manage was to get out a three-ring binder into which we both put important information, such as wills, passwords, and instructions of various sorts.

Were the contents of this binder adequate when the time came? No. I now wish I’d approached these tasks strategically, thinking through all of our household, business, and personal matters, as I customarily approach tasks.

But the topic of his death felt verboten, so I had kept my distance. I came to regret this.

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Addressing our shortcomings can be painful.

The second category of shortfall was even more painful — seeing in high def my shortcomings as a person.

The common characteristic of these, I realized, was having been self-focused for a lot of the time: How my day went… what I did… what I’d said… what I’d written… how I felt… what I wanted to do… On and on.

I wanted to talk about all of this with Ralph. I had come into our relationship with psychological “holes” that were gapingly open and I was needy.

As Ralph was a fantastic listener, my need to be self-focused fit nicely with his great capacity to be supportive.

All the topics I'd wanted to talk about can be subsumed under “sharing,” the kind of stuff that gets exchanged with your partner. But still, I see myself as having been too self-focused.

I also have to cop to having been too critical of him. Ralph was always doing his conscientious best and working hard in every possible way, and it took me many years to realize this.

His extreme conscientiousness resulted in abhorring criticism; there was virtually no way he could “try harder” than he continuously did. He was always at max.

Yet, sometimes his max fell short of my wishes or standards, and I was critical about it. I'd learned to be non-blameful as I spoke to him about these matters, but I wish I’d been slower to speak of his shortfalls.

Perhaps my greatest shortfall was being highly resistant to his complaints about me. I was immediately defensive upon hearing about them, no matter how gently and caringly he expressed his concern.

Like him, I am conscientious and abhor criticism, but my particularly annoying way of being defensive was by counter-attacking — finding a way to turn the complaint back on him. I now see this as odious.

These were painful reckonings for me.

Ralph deserved better than he got sometimes, and I'm left with this awful awareness with no way to amend now for what happened.

I was a flawed partner. Seeing this in sharp relief is painful.

I was a great partner also, I know that, and he saw me that way most of the time, but the day that I really saw my marital flaws in full living color was a painful day of reckoning.

So, what’s to be made of these shortcomings, now that I'm a widow?

First, having a review and blazing new clarity is a natural part of the grieving process.

As you work through the complexity of your thoughts and feelings about your spouse and your time together, scenes play through your mind like a long movie in which you review the meanings of key experiences you shared.

It’s no surprise that your own behavior as a partner is part of that great review. Coming to terms with the death of your spouse includes coming to terms with yourself as their partner.

Remember, these failures are "spilled milk."

This is painful, as no one is able to change the past. It does help to know that I was “good enough” for Ralph to have been generally very happy with me and that he felt very good about our marriage.

Yet, I wish I could have eliminated all of my shortfalls. I realize I’m a flawed human being like everyone else and I need to reach for and apply self-acceptance here.

Acceptance is one of the conditions that promotes growth, so if I wish to foster my growth in the hopes that I can move past some of these shortfalls, then acceptance is what is needed.

That’s all we can do about it.

There’s no benefit from excoriating oneself over past failures.

We have to see them, accept them, and find a way to give ourselves genuine acceptance in the face of our flaws. No one grows from recrimination.

We all need acceptance, especially as we’re taking a clear-eyed look at our shortcomings.

Growth isn’t easy, and it may even feel impossible when you're trying to move forward after becoming a widow. But with a little bit of self-acceptance, you can begin to heal and remember the love and good times you shared with your spouse.

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Patty Howell, Ed.M., A.G.C., is a prolific author, developer of psychosocial education programs, and president of Healthy Relationships California, a non-profit that has taught relationship skills programs to more than 200,000 participants. She co-authored World Class Marriage: How to Create the Relationship You Always Wanted with the Partner You Already Have with her late husband, Ralph Jones.