Simply put, “latent grief” is grief that was never satisfactorily dealt with during the early stages, and has come back. Reasons why grief may be delayed are many, but the most common reason is that a W, knowing how difficult grief is, often pushes it aside (denial) or substitutes it for more self-pleasing activities and pursuits in order to distract himself from the agony of grief. Often, a new love in his life can delay a W's journey to recovery because she represents a pleasing distraction from the arduous task of working through grief feelings. However, grief is like an insolent child: it will kick and scream until it gets the attention it wants.
Latent grief is usually triggered by some kind of new emotional and/or stressful event in a W's life, such as a child's entrance into college (empty nest syndrome), a new job, and even another loss. Guilt is often a factor. When latent grief happens, a GOW (Girlfriend Of a Widower) is suddenly both shocked and confused as her W goes into a self-imposed exile in order to deal with HIS suddenly confusing and shocking feelings.
The problem with latent grief for the GOW is that it strikes out of seemingly nowhere. The relationship can be running along rather smoothly, and then whammo....the widower suddenly becomes withdrawn, sulky, depressed, etc....and refuses to discuss his feelings. Since he has convinced himself (and you, too) that he was beyond bereavement, this new and surprising development makes him shut down even further. He feels he cannot possibly discuss these new feelings with you NOW, since he has already spent so much time and effort convincing you that he WAS ready to love again.
At this point, a W may ask his GOW for a separation, or may simply stop all contact. It is not his intention to hurt her, but rather, to distance himself from that which is distracting him from the grief work he knows he must accomplish in order to heal. A W who does not realize that his latent grief is normal and temporary may need to enter counseling in order to receive validation and to learn effective tools for healing.
So what is a GOW to do? Unfortunately, at this point, grief is stronger than your W, so the "alone time" he requests is vital to his healing and must be respected, even encouraged. Your W will have to complete the grief stage he formerly skipped before he can move on again. Only HE knows what is best for himself, grief-wise. Everyone grieves in their own way and in their own time; thus, while a widow who dates a W may find his actions strange if she herself had never experienced latent grief, it is perfectly normal - even common - for others, including her W. It is statistically unclear how long the average length of separation caused by latent grief may last. However, it is best to let a W lead.
During the separation, a GOW would be wise to research grief so she can learn to somewhat understand what her W is going through.
Latent grief differs in severity from one mourner to another and each widower deals with latent grief in differing lengths of time. Thus, it's hard to put a finger on what to expect. I know you are so tired of being patient, and all you really want are guarantees, but I'm afraid I can't offer any. However, I'll try to give you some idea:
For one, you can expect a kind of "bipolar" experience, meaning he will be maniacally UP one day, and depressingly DOWN another in a roller-coaster kind of way. It can happen surprisingly fast, too: one minute, you'll be having a nice, happy dinner together, and the next minute he'll be crying in his dessert.
Secondly, you can expect him to try to push you away. He may do this for a variety of reasons: to get the space he needs to cope with his emotions, to keep you at a distance while he goes through this so he won't hurt you emotionally while he copes, to deal with his overwhelming guilt feelings, etc. And just as quickly, he may try to pull you back into this life. During this push/pull experience, all you can do is go with the flow and let him lead. During those times he pushes you away, keep in casual contact to let him know you care. During the times he pulls you in, try to get him to open up and communicate his feelings. Don’t worry about bringing up his painful past. He NEEDS to talk about it in order to purge it.
During this separation, a GOW/W couple may cease all communication if that is what a W has decided is best. However, I believe casual "check-up" contacts are important to maintaining healthy lines of communication, thus keeping a spark alive until such time as the W has learned to better manage his grief.
Thirdly, understand that there is nothing you have done or could do to bring on his episodes of latent grief. It's not your fault. Neither should you blame him or accuse him of doing something over which he has no control. He is just as confused as you are.
Lastly, understand that therapy takes time. You will be called on to deliver the most patience you have ever had to give. It is a good sign that he accepts he has a problem, better still that he has sought help for it. Realize that latent grief IS temporary; he will not deal with it forever. Sure, he will always grieve his loss to some extent, but not in a way that impedes his personal growth and happiness as it does now.
Accepting latent grief as a normal step towards recovery goes a long way towards building the patience and endurance she will need to survive such a breakup. It is also important for a GOW who is enduring a grief-related separation to take care of herself - physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually - lest she fall into depression's grip.
It's up to each individual GOW to decide whether or not she can stay with her W while he attempts recovery from latent grief. Many women do, and they are rewarded for their patience and understanding. It depends on the woman's strength and endurance. But if you truly feel you cannot possibly learn to trust him again...if you feel he has hurt you beyond forgiveness....if you cannot possibly wait around for however long it takes him to recover...then by all means and with my permission, start packing your bags. But if you feel you love him and yourself enough to work through this together....if he is willing to be more open and communicative about his feelings while he recovers....if you are willing to understand the complexities of latent grief and commit yourself to researching all you can about it so you will know what to expect...then by all means and with my permission, stay and work it all out.
For more information on the topics of latent grief and surviving a breakup or "fits and starts" episode, please click the links below, which will take you to a few entries in my blog, "Loving A Widower":
For a great excerpt from a professional point of view about latent grief, please click to:
Finally, if you are experiencing a separation due to latent grief, I encourage you to become a member of The Official WOW/GOW Message Board, where over 600 women worldwide - many who share your experiences - meet to commiserate, share, advise, and encourage each other. Membership is free, and as the moderator, I am there daily.