Saturday, April 4, 2009

"Moving On" and "Letting Go" - Are They The Same?

I am often asked by women interested in a relationship with a widower how they can tell if their men are truly beyond bereavement and ready to date (or fall in love) again. Since I don’t know their widowers personally, and because grief is different for everyone in terms of time, I cannot answer this question with absolute certainty.

But of one thing I am certain: “Moving on” and “letting go” are not one in the same.

After the funeral is over, friends and family go back to their homes and lives, and the widower is left to pick up the pieces of his recently shattered life. At that point, “moving on” seems like an eternity to him; an impossible task for which he is sorely equipped to handle in his present grief state. However, “moving on” is exactly what he begins to accomplish, one painfully torturous day at a time. It is the first step on the road to healing.

Moving on becomes as necessary as breathing. Psychologists say that the sooner a widower can begin a new routine, the better. He may be barely functional as he trudges through another day without his spouse, but he is at least making an effort towards a new kind of normalcy. The familiarity of his formerly tailored married life is now missing, making his newly widowed life seem strange and awkward.

This slow movement through time will build the widower a new life, albeit as a newly single man. It is an adaptation for which there is only one choice involved: a widower can either stay in bed and forever avoid life, or he can get up, get dressed, and face the world again. Therefore, moving on is more of a physical response to a life situation rather than a mental act.

A woman interested in dating a widower during his “moving on” journey may erroneously believe that his state of grief is manageable only because his daily life appears to be so well organized. She may feel confident that because he has moved on and acquired a new life routine, her presence in it will not be unwelcome.

However, a perfectly organized life routine is often the biggest clue to defining a widower’s present state of grief, as the act of rigid structure and unwavering routine can sometimes be an obsession to hide emotions with which he has not yet dealt. Achieving a comfortable life balance is something a widower strives to accomplish, and anything – or anyone - that may interfere with his hard-earned emotional balance is considered a threat, only because the widower has not yet “let go”.

Indeed, the changes a widower will make along his journey towards moving beyond bereavement will involve making mental decisions and choices - and the biggest will be choosing and deciding to let go.

The newly widowed often equate letting go with betrayal, and may angrily question, “What is it that I must let go of? My memories? My grief? What?” The anger comes from believing society would be more comfortable with him if he would only forget about his late wife, his past life, and erase that part of his life completely from his mind and heart.

Sadly, he is right. Society is uncomfortable with grief as a whole, is loathe to discuss its taboo intricacy and intimacy, does not fully understand its complexity, and sometimes forces the bereaved to adapt to its ever changing and rapidly evolving face just to suit its membership as a whole. But grief defies the law of sociology insomuch as it is unique to each member of society. In other words, one societal law regarding the grief process cannot and will not govern people as a whole because the community of a society is made up of individual people who grieve in their own unique ways and in their own unique time.

And yet, our evolving society, in its quest to aid its fellow members, is right about one thing: Letting go is vital to healing the bereaved beyond the mere functionality of moving on.

“Letting go” is defined as a release: to liberate, disengage, or set free. It is a conscious choice; a mental act that requires free will and effort. Unlike moving on, letting go is not something a widower is forced to accept nor something to which he feels he must adapt. But like moving on, letting go is necessary for a healthy emotional life balance in a widower’s new unmarried life.

In regard to widowhood, letting go simply involves an acceptance of the facts about the deceased: that she is dead, will not be coming back, does not control life from the Great Beyond, will not be angry/hurt/mortified/disappointed if her surviving spouse decides to fall in love again, and has no more ties to nor control over her surviving spouse’s marital status. But more importantly, letting go also involves a clear acceptance that the past is history…a history that may be long remembered and still loved, but a time that served its purpose during its time but has since been laid to rest.

Many widowers never let go. They move on, adapt, and go through their daily lives feeling completely satisfied. But is this a healthy state of mentality? Who am I, or we, to say? Can a widower live out the remainder of his life happily in this state of denial? Perhaps, but let me warn you: A widower who is content with not letting go will not be suitable for a relationship beyond friendship.

In conclusion, a woman who is contemplating starting a relationship with a widower must be clear about the differences between his “moving on” and his ‘letting go”. While they both involve a transition through grief, the former is functional, while the latter is critical. Recognizing the difference will help you along your journey of Loving A Widower...

~Copyright 2009 Julie Donner Andersen. No reprints or links back to this article without express permission form author.


  1. I really appreciate this site and thanks a million. Just to know there are so many like me is in itself comforting. Can you please give more details/signs/difference on "moving on" and "letting go". This will help us understand whether W has let go or is just moving on???

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    Simply put, letting go is crucial to a widower's "happily ever after" beyond bereavement. It is a choice eery widower must face. Some choose not to, and in most cases, this is because the widower feels guilty about living when his LW is not, and/or he still feels a marital commitment to his LW/marriage that he is not ready to put into perspective. Those Ws who have chosen to let go can be recognized as men who are ready, willing and able to put the past in its proper perspective, holding close to its memory yet not allowing it to interfere with their present happiness.

  3. Dear Julie

    Thank you for this blog. Please have patience as I write this. I am in love with a widower 15 yrs older to me. We met for business, he fell in love with me the minute he saw me. I took 10 months before I could fall in love with him ( I have been a widow for 20 yrs). during these 10 months I communicated everything about me to let him know me. It's been 8 months now after I have fallen in love with him so in all we have known each other for 1 yr 6months. I had made it clear that I am not interested in a casual relation but a committed one. He has a son 26yrs and a daughter 22 yrs. I have a son 22yrs. I told my family about our relation 5 months back, my family was happy for me, my son welcomed him, He visits my home and it is very difficult to stop him from coming over. The problem is he's not yet introduced me to his family nor shows any intention of doing so. He has not spoken about me to family either. I am totally hidden from his family though he says his family has an idea about him dating somebody. I have requested him to talk to his children. He wants me to wait till his children are settled (6 yrs or so) and only after that he can take his life ahead, which i find crazy (I am 41 while he is 57). He goes into sudden withdrawals during which he never calls nor sends any sms and I am totally lost as to what's happening with him and where is this relationship heading. He still has his wedding band on and says it is for his children when asked. I broke off with him on the 30th of Nov last year but came back together on the 13th of Dec. Though I have no doubts about his feelings for me, I know one thing for sure that he is unable to take a stand. He has 5 dominating sisters and now his children too have total control over him. Again on the 16th of Jan he withdrew himself completely. We don't go for dinners or anything, he prefers coming over to my place or just go for a drive. He doesn't take me public. I spoke to him the other day as said I cannot and will not tolerate this treatment any longer and also asked him to see a counsellor. I am a very confident and secured woman. A christian in every sense. Though we kiss and hold each other passionately, I have told that sex would be only after marriage. Right now I have broken off with him the second time. He's says I am being demanding and asked me not to take hasty decision. I don't know what to do. Wisdom says move on as I doubt his ability to commit but I still love him and this has left me shattered but I know I can bounce back. Please reply

  4. Obviously, he doesn't think his adult children will be very supportive of hm dating, and he is afraid of the drama to follow his news that he is seeing you. Same holds true for not taking you out n public - he seems afraid of what socirty thinks. He needs to take possession of his own life choices. You don't say how long he was widowed before he met you, but it would appear that it wasn't a very long time. I believe you are right to draw a personal boundary line and inform him about your need to be accepted by family/friends/society. Stating your personal needs is not being demanding, but his accusing you of being such is a defense mechanism. Indeed, he has uissues, though it's not clear whether they are related to his inability to "let go," or his fear of commitment and/or reactions from others. Good luck and please let me know how it goes.

  5. Thank you Julie for your kind advice. the above two comments are from me. well when we first met, it was 1yr and two months after his wife's death. as on today it is 2yrs and 7 months. They were married for 24 yrs. I will definitely let you know how it goes and you have been a great help to me. thanks once again!

  6. Hi Julie, I have been dating a widower for two years. Roughly a year and a half into the relationship I asked if he would mind moving a very large collage from his family room to another room. His wife past over 14 years agao, and most of the rooms in his home still have pictureshis LW. After 6 months of dodging this he has blamed me for ruining everything, because I continued to ask why he can move NOT remove this 4' x 2' collage. It made me feel uncomfortable sitting in this one room as it was the main focal point. Not to mention his 25 yo daughter who is so disrespectful to me, and he just tells me to ignore her. When we first met, she shared the bathroom with him in the master bedroom. But after a year I said how frustrating it is to have her knocking on his bedroom door waking is on the weekend so she can shower and do her make up. When there is a bathroom right outside of her room. She was 14 when her mother passed and this move to the front bathroom finally happened last year. From that point on she has hated me and continued to come between us. I have tried talking to her, wrote her a letter, always bought her Christmas and birthday gifts, but her behavior continued. Upon returning from vacation two weeks ago, I told him how much I missed being together since we were away for a week. Said I wanted to come over and stay the night. He said that was fine, as long as I could deal with "the picture". I replied with no I can't deal with it. During vacation I asked where are heading for our future. It's been two years and I feel as though I'm living in shadows and you have me on the sidelines. He was furious with me and said nothinng is ever good enough for me. That it's been two years I don't know when we will be together, you have to plan everything down to the date and time. That's not the case, and he never brings up the picture, but talks about everything else. I finally said I can't do this anymore, he blames me, stated I said I would never leave to him and his daughter. And now I have ruined everything, that he's extremely pissed off at me and now he has to endure another loss.

    I'm devistated to say the least, I truly love him with all my heart, but if he can't even start to let go of his past by putting some pictures away, we can't ever have a future together.

    I'm at a loss, it's been two weeks and he is so angry and me, his messages are downright hurtful.

    I'm going to stop commmunication and let him take some time to decompress. I told him he's not hearing what I'm saying, and his anger takes over.

    Such a sad loss, when we are alone away from his home and his daughter we are truly happy and compatible.

    Just going through the motions right now, and I do know in time this too shall pass.

  7. What is hard is being married to a widower who wants nothing to do with Christmas as it was his late wife's birthday. Also giving up all you had because he wants nothing that was yours.

  8. What if he hides you and excludes you from his family and friends (they know your name and that your a friend but that’s it). We have an amazing friendship/relationship. I see it as a relationship (I do not believe if your just friends you have sex) and he sees it as a friendship. We don’t really date (I mean like go out, we just hang out as his house sometimes with the kids. Sometimes he comes to mine for sex.), It’s kind of a friends with benefits thing. I have gotten to know the kids well. I have told him the fwb thing I am not comfortable with. He keeps saying he needs time to make things right in his head and does not want to loose me and what we have. It’s been 2 years since his wife’s death. As he puts it….it’s only been two years. Am I doing the right thing by staying and giving him time?

  9. So, I have been dating a widower for 15 months. The four year anniversary of his wife's death was Sept. 15. He asked me four days later if I was ok with the events of the week. I said I was confused about what he was talking about. I said I had already mentioned the face book post was lovely. He then proceeded to tell me how he takes the day off from work and looks through pictures, and rehashes the days events. He told me it was not possible to work yet. Too difficult of a day. I also received a dozen long stem roses the day before with a message simply, Love and name. I thought that odd and when I asked him earlier he said simply he knew we had had a special date sometime that week a year earlier and that coupled with his state of mind that week, somehow equated to me receiving roses.
    All this to say, I was extremely hurt. I rationally tried to explain to him that I didn't think he was emotionally ready to be in a relationship just yet. Not going to work four years later seems an act of mourning or grieving, not memorializing. I expected going to the cemetery, saying a prayer etc. but not this day long ritual.
    I should also add that birthdays, death date and anniversary get a profile picture change on a fb and a lovely post. I have yet to have a profile couples picture displayed on his page. He has posted our picture, not in this manner.
    At a party in the last six months, he was asked if he still had any pets. His reply included the two living animals and then mention of a dead bird buried in the back yard. That pet was their bird bought in college 20 plus years ago which died 8 or so years ago???

    He told me he loved me back in January in a most sincere way. One other time after that. All the other times have been much less and almost strained. It took me a lot to tell him I needed to hear it. I have tried to talk about it three times. His reply is, "But, I try and show you."

    All of these things, among others tell me he isn't ready emotionally. Almost seems guilty for being in a relationship.
    What do you think?

  10. I am dating a man who's fiance died 5 months prior to our 1st date. We have been seeing each other 4 months. I am falling in love with him and have told him of my feelings. He said he is "not there yet". He makes me feel loved and is very sweet to me. The problem is that I am a secret and his fiance's family and most of his family do not know he is seeing me. He says that he thinks they will judge him harshly. How long should I go along with this secret? I also just noticed his facebook profile still says he is engaged to her. I don't want to break it off with him but don't want to be hurt either. Any advise?