Having lost her husband at age 40, Carol Brody Fleet knows all too well what it's like to deal with the grief and questions that come from widowhood. In her own time of pain, Fleet felt her resources were few, limited mostly to grief books that, she feared, would keep her stuck in a state of sorrow, unable to move on.
To address her own need and that of millions of other widows like her, Fleet launched Widows Wear Stilettos, a nonprofit organization and website, in 2006. Its mission? Foster a place where widows could find the help and support they needed. In the new book Happily Even After: A Guide To Getting Through (and Beyond) the Grief of Womanhood, she shares thousands of questions and answers from her site, addressing everything from dealing with grief, to handling the holidays, to finances, to dating.
Here, we excerpt a chapter of the book where she addresses one of the most common topics widows struggle with: getting intimate with someone new after a loved one passes.
“Sex makes everything more complicated. Even not having it, because the not having it makes it complicated.”
With kudos to the writer of this marvelously insightful phrase, when it comes to this most sensitive and simultaneously hot button issue, I believe that truer words have never been written. We miss intimacy, except for when we don't miss it. We want intimacy because we miss the closeness and the sharing and let's face it, the just plain "it-feels-so-good" of it all, except when we don't want it because it's hard to imagine ourselves being intimate with anyone other than our husbands. Yet intimacy is a necessary and fundamental part of the human condition, a need that never really goes away. Not with time, not with age, and certainly not because of widowhood.
Never in a million years would I ever tell anyone, widowed or otherwise, when to engage in intimacy with a partner. To me, this is among the most intensely personal and private decisions that one can make. I also recognize that each one of us has very strong opinions concerning at what point intimacy should occur within a relationship. That said, this is one of the most common subjects on which I receive letters, which clearly means that intimacy, in any and all of its forms, is on the minds of millions of women, widowed and otherwise.
"My husband is the only man that I've ever been physically intimate with. I wouldn't even begin to know how to be with a stranger."
"I have only ever been with my husband. What if I do [something] 'wrong'?"
To my way of thinking, I would have to know someone pretty well before I made the very important decision to become intimate. Without getting preachy or otherwise standing on moral ceremony, and understanding that the decision to become intimate is possibly the most hugely personal decision that one can make, the easiest and most obvious reply here is that if he is a "stranger," you are not going to be physically intimate with him, are you? You are instead and hopefully taking your time getting to know somebody absolutely wonderful before taking such an important step.
As to doing something "wrong," be assured that there aren't many variations on this wonderfully delightful theme. In other words, with the exception of perhaps yelling out the wrong name at an inopportune moment, what on earth could you possibly do "wrong"?
It truly doesn't matter if you have slept with only your husband or if you have slept with more than one man in your lifetime; the fact remains that the first time with someone new is indeed the "first time." It is a time of delight and discovery, each of the other. There is no "right" or "wrong." There is only the two of you getting to know one another in a most loving way.
"I worry that if anyone ever does come along, and I get much older, [that] physical intimacy won't be the same. I rage at the waste."
You're absolutely right—when you become older, physical intimacy isn't the same. In my most humble opinion, it actually gets better but only if you have the widow-tude that it can get better. I honestly don't know where people get it in their heads that physical intimacy (or the need for physical intimacy) diminishes or goes away altogether. It starts in your head, my friend. It all begins with you.
If you decide that physical intimacy won't be the same (which I can only imagine translates into, "as good as it was before"), then you are right. It is truly a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the saying goes: If you think you can, you can, and if you think you can't, you're right.
I don't ever want you to think of the years without a man in your life as "wasted" years. Remember, in order to have a fulfilling relationship with another, you must be content with yourself in your own right, as an individual. In no way would I ever consider the many years spent on my own as having been "wasted" years, but rather as time to have gotten to know myself, transition into a new life, and make the decision concerning intimacy for all of the right reasons.
All of that said, I do want you to think about this: You can't start to do something "sooner," but you have the power to change today and tomorrow right now! Make the choice to live the abundant life that you clearly want to live. You have the power and the strength within you to do it.
"I am involved with a man [and] he is willing to do (and has done) everything in order to be with me. I really do want to be with him but what do I do about the [cheating] guilt?"
"How am I supposed to be intimate with someone when I feel like I'm having an affair? My husband has been gone for [years] but I can't seem to get over these feelings [of cheating]."
"I go out on dates, but whenever someone even tries to kiss me good night, I just see my husband's face. If I can't even let someone kiss me, how am I supposed to do anything more than that?"
What is called for here is a quick reminder of the vows that every single one of us recited. In one form or another, regardless of whether we had a huge wedding or a "just the two of us" ceremony, and whatever our particular religious affiliation, every single one of us said, in one way or another: "till death do us part." In short, dear friends, you upheld your end of the bargain. Death has parted you and your husband, therefore, there is no cheating going on here. What I have actually found at the heart of questions such as these is a deeply held fallacy, a myth that has existed for far too long. Too many of you feel that by dating again or falling in love again or becoming intimate again, even though you are not really cheating per se, you feel as though you are either cheating on the life that you had with your husband or that you are diminishing or disrespecting his memory. Folks, this simply isn't the case. You have already learned that: You Can Honor Your Past. You Can Treasure Your Past. You Can Love Your Past. You Do Not Have To Live In Your Past.
These words continue to hold true here, at possibly one of the most important times of your life. Remember—the love that you have for your late husband will never ever go away. Not ever. However, you are also not destined to remain in everlasting mourning, that is not why you are here. If you choose it, living a life of abundance includes companionship, love, and yes, physical intimacy, which is an important and beautiful expression of that love.