Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Selfishness Of Grief, AKA: Fits & Starts

Recently, a GOW on The Official GOW/WOW Message Board (at posed the following problem regarding her W's 'fits & starts' behaviour:

“When my W told me he needed space, one of the questions I asked him was if his true intention was to break up with me completely. I understand logically that the grief has overtaken him, but anxiety kicks in and I start questioning whether or not I've done something to ruin the relationship. Is this anxiety and insecurity normal?”

I understand what my GOW “sister” is saying. It's hard NOT to take it personally when a W needs to create a self-imposed exile to go hide in his "man cave" for awhile and lick his grief wounds - especially a W who does not know how to communicate his feelings very well. Feels like rejection.

When you've invested your time, energies, and love into a relationship in which the other person seems to be rejecting you (even if it's temporarily, as per ‘fits and starts’ behaviour), then yes, your GOW insecurities are bound to flare up.

Wouldn't it be GREAT if, during periods of 'fits and starts', Ws could say, "I need some time/space to figure some things out re: my grief feelings. Thanks for asking, but no - there isn't anything you can do to help me. Rest assured, I'm not interested in any other woman - I just need some "me time". During this time, I will still be loving you, and my goal is to return to you on ____(date/time), at which point I will have it allllll figured out. Please be patient with me, don't contact me, and above all else - don't worry."

But noooooooo! Instead, they just leave a GOW dangling!

However, take heart - somewhere deep inside, most Ws know that their ‘fits and starts’ hurt their GOWs. There is a huge difference between a W who knows (that his actions are hurtful to the GOW) and cares, and a W who knows he’s being hurtful and DOESN'T care. With the latter, it’s more of a character flaw than a W issue. But with the former, grief is soooo overwhelmingly selfish (because it HAS to be), and selfish emotions can sooo cloud a person's sensitivity to others, that it would appear as if he doesn’t care when, in reality, he does.

The thing is, grief is such a monster that it takes control of a W's usual "good man" self, and turns him into a person you barely recognize: a selfish, self-centered, insensitive, cranky, guilt-ridden, self-pitying, oftentimes self-flagellating - - - - caterpillar. Yep - there goes the ugly insect into his cocoon! So when you think about it, do you really WANT to be with a W when he's like that? I'd rather wait until he emerges as a butterfly. And...he will. It just takes time. How MUCH time? Depends on the caterpillar!

I was chatting the other day with a dear friend of mine about her experiences as a parent who lost a child to cancer. She was talking about how her grief and her husband's grief were sooo damaging to their marriage that they almost divorced. (The divorce rate is very high among couples who lose a child by any means of death). When I mentioned how Ws tend to go through 'fits and starts' when dating, she assured me that this was a GOOD thing...that she wished she and her husband could have spent a year apart to lick their wounds before coming back together in a more "healing" state of mind. As it was, she said, they were each too close to the pain, and to each other, to be of much help. The selfishness of grief was, to them, like poison. She resented his grief, and he resented hers. She needed him, but he was too overcome...and vice versa.

Granted, GOWs are NOT "too close to the pain" since, after all, the GOW didn't lose LW. But it would appear that, based on my friend's experience, no one can really be of much help to someone who grieves, even someone who loves a W. Grief is a solitary journey. Thinking of it this way, we can understand how ‘fits and starts’, though difficult and hurtful to the GOW, are perhaps just blessings in disguise.

It's always a good idea during times of separation to keep your focus on yourself: find ways to pass the excruciatingly slooow and hard time with things and people that will make you feel good about yourself.

Some GOWs find it cathartic to start a journal and detail their feelings. A few even share this journal with their Ws once he emerges from his “cave” in order to show him exactly how she felt so he can be more aware of her feelings if he ever again finds the need to again impose his ‘fits and starts’ exile. This is a great way to communicate your needs to your W as you work together to endure the difficult yet oftentimes necessary ‘fits and starts’.


  1. Hi Julie,

    How pertinent that you speak about this issue right now. I have just watched as my W went in to his grief cave, brought on by the advent of Mothers day 2 weeks ago. I found this episode much more difficult to endure than other trigger times in the last 15 months and it is my view that this time I felt it far more acutely because the longer we are close and the closer we become, the harder I find it to be the strength to carry us both through these times.
    We had some real quality time together this weekend and it was clear that he was back in our world again, at least till the next time.
    I am a strong woman and recognise that for me to be dealing with these moments, I need to do my best to follow his lead on how things resolve themselves without too much stress and emotional separation and for someone like me that in itself can be challenging as in the rest of my life I am pretty much used to finding solutions for the ups and downs that I find myself in on a weekly basis.This monster has no regard for anything or anyone, especially not my very special W.
    I thought i was at the point of no return just days ago and was looking forward to a future without the continuous stress and tension that goes with his retractions, but I am so very glad i have seen that its as much about how I deal with his grief as it is about he deals with it.
    We are best friends and as best friends we will work through this together with my eye forever set on his recovery. I have come to understand that there are 3 people in our relationship and although i never knew his late wife, I have always considered her my friend too, so i shall just trust in myself and him and dig deeper next time.

    Thank you for your solid and empathetic advice, I find it very helpful when I feel I have lost what we have built, only to turn around and find that as he weakens I can and will carry him, albeit without him always having to worry about how I am coping..He would do that if the boot was on the other foot..that I know, without question

  2. Julie - It is a bit unerving that right when I am ready to give up hope you post a subject that once again renews the hope in my heart. I guess I first thought a "fit and start" would be a week or a month or two and then all would return to "normal". What I am discovering is that it is months and months this time and sometimes I lose sight of the fact that the grief will lessen in time and that we do have hope for a future together. It is a very hard thing to understand and wait for especially when you don't know what is going on in his heart and head during the time apart. I take such comfort in your words and your advise and it helps me to find strength to keep waiting and keep hoping and keep moving forward on my own while he deals with the monsters that engulf him. Thank-you so much for everything.

  3. Tomorrow is Mother's day. It is the first mother's day that my W boyfriend and his daughter will spend together. He has been withdrawing over the last couple of days, I think because he took down a bunch of photos of his LW before he was ready.

    It is really hard being a GOW. When I read the above post, I realized there is no way I would do this for months and months. It is hard enough for a few days.

    What I wonder about is this: It seems to me that a new relationship is a fragile thing. It is like this tiny little plant that needs gentle rain, good soil, some sun, but plenty of shelter. I worry about how such a fragile thing can survive the storms of a grieving widower/widow's loss.

    I think the GOW or BOW must need to be a very strong person to go through the waiting and doubt and other trials.

    Does anyone out there have any hope, or encouragement?

  4. I don't have an answer but I do feel your pain. My husband lost his first wife suddenly in 2002. He was raising his 7 yr old daughter when I met him in 2003. Long story short--we dated for 3 yrs and have been married for 4 yrs. I have been empathetic with both my bonus daughter and husband. We moved into a new home so I made sure that she was able to put up pics of her mom and had her choose what items she wanted to keep that belonged to her mom. I also told Sandra (not her real name) that I never wanted to take her mom's place; however, I would make sure she is loved and cared as my own 2 children were. It has been 8 yrs since his wife passed away and my husband is still not comfortable in having a conversation with Sandra about her mother. In the past year I have seen my husband cry over Layla (name changed)at least 5 times...and I mean cry nonstop for up to 10 mins. Along with that, Mother's Day has not ever been celebrated. Yes, he gives me a gift but we do not attend church because it upsets him when the pastor asks the mothers to stand nor do we go out for dinner. The focus is on acknowledging our individual mothers. I believe my husband's level of grief has not transitioned in a healthy manner. Sandra spent the Saturday night before Mother's Day at a friend's house. On Sunday she told me Happy Mother's Day by text. I spoke with my husband the day after Mother's Day and told him how hurt I was and that the important role I have in our family was taken for granted and therefore overlooked. I then told him that from now on my 2 children and I will visit my sister who lives out of the area. I feel that would allow me to enjoy my day and he and Sandra can grieve or celebrate his deceased wife as they wish.

    My faith is important to me and has been the reason I'm still in this marriage. I love my husband very much and knew that 3 people would be joined in our marriage. However, as the years go by, I see how our marriage and commitment to each other is not valued equally. I must say that he is a good man and a wonderful father. But, I think he married me mainly because he needed help in raising his daughter and, of course, life itself. Our children are very close and from the outside looking in, we appear to be happy. We have discussed this dilemma many times but he soon turns defensive on me and then I feel guilty in wanting more of him. The future is uncertain. Please share your thoughts with me.

  5. To All...

    I hope you will join the 500+ members of The Official WOW/GOW Message Board, which can be accessed via my website at Suffice to say, you are NOT alone - your situations are shared by many others who will sympathize and advise you on the Board. :) Blessings to you all! ~ JDA

  6. Its not just GOW and WOW. How about FOW (Friends of Widowers). My best male friend just lost his wife and has retreated from everyone. Completely left me in the lurch despite how I did everything I could to care for him during her illness.

    Grief is a very selfish journey.

  7. Indeed, Anonymous....friends often find thesmelves cast aside while a W grieves. You have been very sensitive and toughtful thus's the time for even more sensitivity and thoughtfulness. He needs this time to sort through some very confusing feelings. Although his wife was terminally ill for a while before her passing, your friend did not really start grieving until she died. It is a falacy that caretakers grieve while their spouses are stil lalive. This is not true, as there is still hope. When a spouse dies, all hope of their recovery dies with them. THIS is when real grief emerges. I hope knowing this will help you be more undertanding and less angry. Blame grief...not your friend. He is doing all he can to cope. I'm sure he apperciates your generosity of self when his wife was dying...he's just too overwhelemd right now to express this to you.

  8. I am dealing with a fits and starts issue currently and he has totally shut down no communication for over a week the LW date of death was almost two weeks ago we had a great relationship prior to this what do I do he won't answer any texts or calls from me I am a mess and I do not want to lose him