Parents struggling with their loss may lash out. Grief is messy stuff, especially when kids are involved.
Q: My wife died a few months ago. I’ve started dating, but my former mother-in-law objects and has stopped speaking to me and the children. What do I do when my in-laws don’t want me dating after the death of my wife?
I see this issue frequently, because it’s often jarring to the community at large when we see a widower start dating after the death of their wife. People are worried about someone getting hurt, and they can be very judgmental. This is messy stuff, especially when kids are involved.
Remember that your in-laws are struggling with a profound blow, and in their grief they may lash out. They may be worried that you will create a new family and pull away from them. They may feel as though you are not mourning their child as much as you should. Whether or not they’ve spoken with you directly, you can tell they have strong feelings about your choices.
Here’s the honest truth: Your in-laws aren’t sleeping in bed with you, they are not providing that level of intimacy and love to you, and they don’t get to say that you can or can’t have that in your life. That’s the bottom line here.
Now, you can get defensive, but I suggest you reach out with love and be honest. For example, you can say, “I miss your daughter immensely, I am lonely, I want this in my life.” Broker a conversation, and see if you can come to some understanding.
I’m also going to encourage you to be open to listening to the in-laws and their concerns. Dating after three months gives me some pause because you’re probably still highly vulnerable, emotionally. Simple fixes can look very tempting. Ask yourself if the in-laws are triggering you because you feel a little guilt about it being too soon.
I will admit that most often I see this as a guy thing — men dating after the death of a wife. This is a generalization, but it seems that a father often wants his kids to have a mom, and he’s trying to fix that by getting into a new relationship quickly. I see women being much more emotional about dating, and more cautious about bringing in the kids. I’m not surprised it’s your mother-in-law who has the objection.
If others around you are also responding negatively to your dating after the death of your wife, take a minute to look at that. What is dating facilitating for you? Is it about a physical or emotional need? Do you have the time right now to devote to building a new relationship? Are the kids ready to see someone new?
There’s no “wrong” answer about dating after the death of your wife, just awareness. For example, maybe this is just about seeking physical intimacy — and if that makes you feel like a more confident, happier and better dad, more power to you! But you probably don’t need to bring your new flame to family dinner.
If you are comfortable that this relationship is right for you, but your in-laws still object, then interacting with them becomes an opportunity to model empathy for your kids. Lead with kindness, and teach your children about understanding.
You may have to become the person who manages the in-law relationship for a while, reaching out to make sure the kids have enough time with their grandparents. This is a time to be honest with the kids, in an age-appropriate way. Because guess what? They already know something’s not right. Right now they are hyper-alert to life changes, and pretending this isn’t happening will only make them more anxious.
Maybe you say, “Mom’s death has been really hard on everyone, we’re all really sad, and Nana and Pop need some time and space to figure it out. We are giving them room to grieve.”
With older kids, you may be comfortable going into more detail, like, “There’s a funky dynamic right now and I don’t have all the answers. Nana and Pop really miss Mom. It’s really hard for them to see our family change, and we need to be ok with that.”
If the in-laws simply aren’t able to stay connected to your family despite your best efforts, and their judgment is too difficult for you to navigate, that’s when you create boundaries. I always recommend “detaching with love.”
There are times in life when you just have to move further away from someone. Think of any relationship like a fire: It has great purpose, but it can also burn the hell out of you. So, if a fire grows and comes toward you, you don’t stand in position and say, “No, the fire will die down.” You back away, carefully, and with respect. But always be ready to cozy up again when the fire returns to warm the hearth.
Pete Shrock, a co-founder of the Richmond, Virginia-based Legacy Navigator, has been immersed in active crisis support for over 15 years. He trained grief experts responding to 9/11 and the shootings at Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech, and he works directly with U.S. Special Forces Gold Star families. He has created programs for grieving children at Comfort Zone Camp, gang members in Chicago and Los Angeles, New York Life insurance agents processing death claims, and National Fallen Firefighters. When he isn’t traveling to support those in distress, he lives in Richmond with his wife and two daughters. Legacy Navigator offers extensive information and services for families managing estate settlement or estate liquidation. They offer free consultations at 800-913-7747.