When Vee and I decided to allow God to use our lives as a ministry to help others we did so with the understanding that our lives, including our hurts and struggles, needed to be transparent. Because God has blessed our relationship and our family so much I fear that sometimes it comes across that there have been no struggles, no challenges, or no hurdles that we have had to overcome. The truth is- there have been. Not many and none so treacherous, but there have definitely been things we have had to work through.
Every relationship has its areas that need refined, and our relationship is no different. Over the next few weeks I want to walk through some of the obstacles that Vee and I have had to walk through - and some them are common for those who are dating or married to a widow. So if you have any questions or any topics that you would like for me to address, please feel free to leave a comment and I will try to address as many as I can over the next few weeks. I can tell you that I don't have any hard and fast answers to anything... I am NO expert! What I can do is to give you an honest glimpse into our lives and how we have navigated our relationship. As I already stated, my goal is to be as transparent as possible, so feel free to ask the hard questions.
Recently Vee and I read the book "The Color of Rain" by Michael and Gine Spehn. Before I go any further let me say that this book beautifully walks the reader through the painfulness of grief, the hardship of raising children in the midst of loss, and in the end has a beautiful story of redemptive love... so if you haven't read it, you should! One night as our family was making one of our many road-trips and the kids were finally starting settle down and drift off to sleep enough to the point where Vee and I could begin to hear ourselves think, Vee pulled out the Color of Rain and began to read. The chapter she started to read quickly drew my attention and before long I felt the the words on the page were the words that my heart had been trying to speak but my mouth could never quite find the right words to articulate.
I want to let Michael Spehn's words speak here, but before I do I want to set up the chapter. Gina Kell and Michael Spehn both lost their spouses at and early age. As the book continues you begin to see that God has woven their lives together - not to make sense out of death and loss - but to give redemption and love where neither had any hope. Sometime after both Gina and Michael lost their spouses they began a friendship and soon after a dating relationship. In chapter 37 Michael shares that Gina's late husband, Matt, had several very close friends who had started a foundation in his name for families who have small children who lost a parent to cancer. Since Michael's wife also died of cancer and left behind small children, Gina approached her late husband's friends with the idea that she wanted to change the name of the foundation to include Michael's late wife as well - the "New Day Foundation for Families, in honor of Matt Kell and Cathy Spehn." Matt's friends were visibly and audibly against the change and, although polite, stood their ground that they wanted to support their friend who had died and were not interested in anyone else coming in the picture. The following is Michael's words from this encounter:
"I was a little insulted, sure, but I got it. At its root was the fact that these guys weren't ready. They were not prepared for the concept of Gina and someone else... anyone else, other than their brother Matt. I understood that completely. I was frustrated by it but I was sympathetic to them at the same time.
We spend years building the really important relationships of our lives; the guys you meet in school, the ones you play ball with, the few who made it through all of the years and all the experiences. These are more than your friends; they are your touchstones that keep you grounded through life's ups and downs. These people, and the collection of memories you share, form the bedrock that gives you the confidence to get married, have children, start new businesses, and so forth.
When Matt Kell died, these men were shaken to their core. They looked around and saw that the foundation of their lives had cracks in it. The grief they felt wasn't simply sadness; it was also fear. Men in general tend to respond to this feeling by shifting into task mode. These guys did that by organizing golf outings and taking Matt's sons to ball games and figuring out ways to help Gina. Which is perfectly well and good, but the core issues remained unresolved. The result is grief delayed. The opposite of those who slip from grief into despair and hopelessness, these folks seem to consciously defer their grief for the sake of the widow and her kids.
I was keenly aware of my status in this group from the start. I was the outsider."
"That's it" I said to Vee and we drove down the road into the dark of the night... "That's what I feel!" Since Jer's death in 2010, his "brothers" and people who knew and loved him came to the aid of Vee and the kids. They didn't know what else to do, so they did whatever they could! They helped take care of the kids, took them out on special trips like Jer would have done if he were alive. They helped with odds and ends projects around the house that Jer would have taken care of if he were still there. They organized the Annual Jeremy King Memorial Hunt and a Jeremy King Memorial Dinner where money was raised to help Faith, Caleb, and Carter as they entered college. All of these things were, and are, super important. And these men and women who stepped up to fill a hole after Jeremy's life ended too short were a God-sent in the truest of senses.
For some (though not all), Vee's status as a widow gave them a tangible outlet to ignore their grief and dive heart first into helping her and the kids. In fact, it was not just an outlet... it was an important role. As Vee and I began to talk and started dating it was hard for many of the people that had been close to Jer. As Michael stated, they were not prepared for the concept of Vee and someone else... anyone else, other than their friend Jeremy. For some, it threatened their "role" in taking care of Vee and the kids, for others they were not ready to see Vee move forward because they themselves had not yet been able to grieve because they had "delayed" their grief in order to help the family Jeremy left behind.
Although it was hard, I understood where these folks were coming from. I had been hurt too. I had scars, but these were not my friends, these were Jeremy's friends and the bond that they had with Jeremy went deep. I could not be mad at them for being hesitant, although it was frustrating at times. As Michael so simply stated, "I was keenly aware of my status in this group from the start. I was the outside." I needed to be as patient with them as I wanted them to be with me.
The good news - by and large, Jeremy had great friends who over time have come to accept me into their circle. I am not "one of the guys" yet - and I may never be. I will never be Jeremy's replacement (not for Vee or anyone else). But I have come to be accepted. And I have come to accept them. I have learned stories from them and have watched them grieve their friend and brother. I hurt for them because I know in Jeremy's death their innocence was taken from them and has left them vulnerable. I stand beside them, as many have stand beside me now. I appreciate them for their friendship to their brother Jeremy, for the way in which they love and care about his family, and for their ability to look beyond their own grief to accept a new person into Vee's life.
So, to make a long story just a little shorter, here are a few helpful tips to remember if you are dating or marrying a widow(er) whose late spouses friends are still active in her life:
1) Just because your widowed girlfriend/boyfriend is ready for a relationship with you does not mean everyone else in her/his life will be. Expect some resistance and be prepared to be an "outsider."
2) Give grace and patience. If the friends of your girlfriend/boyfriends late spouse are not ready, it doesn't mean that they will never be ready. It may take some time but if they see that you honestly care about the widow you will gain their trust and respect.
3) Just because it was their friend doesn't mean they have to be yours. There may be some people you find that you can be friends with, others will just be acquaintances, and others that you may not be close with at all... and that is ok!
4) Remember to be respectful. Many of the "friends" were there to be helpful in a very tragic time. Your girlfriend/boyfriend may not be very close with all of her/his late spouses friends, but chances are she may find their presence meaningful as it reminds her/him of their late spouse. Putting these friends down or trying to remove them from the picture all together may be seen as a threat to remove the memories that your girlfriend/boyfriend has of her/his spouse.
I hope these thoughts are somewhat helpful in your journey. Again, over the next several week I encourage you to ask any questions, challenges, concerns you have about dating or marrying a widow. I look forward to hearing from you and walking this journey with you!