Q. My mother died about nine months ago, and now my 75-year-old father is engaged to a woman he has known for several years. I like the woman, but it seems disrespectful to my mother. I can hardly speak to them. Am I over-reacting?
A. Studies indicate that men suffer greater increases in depression after the death of a spouse than do women. This could be because in traditional marriages, men rely heavily on their wives for social support and companionship. When women are asked who is their most important confidant, they usually say a female friend. When the same question is posed to men, they invariable reply that they confide primarily in their wives.
Studies indicate that if a widower’s previous marriage was happy, he is more likely to seek a partner sooner. In a two-year study of widowhood, researchers discovered that 61 percent of men were in a new, romantic relationship within 25 months after the death of a spouse. In contrast, only 19 percent of widows had found a partner two years later. Involvement in a new relationship has shown to improve physical and psychological well-being for both widows and widowers.
Even though you are suffering after the death of your mother, your response to your father’s romantic involvement is most likely an over-reaction. Remember that he has known this woman for several years; she is not someone he met online or who came into his life suddenly. Even though you may think the relationship is happening too soon after your mother’s death, your father is attempting to enhance his remaining years. Accept his decision and wish them well.
Q. I was the primary caretaker for my elderly husband who was ill for five years and had dementia for the last two years. During that time, he was verbally abusive to me, but to no one else. He died several months ago, and since then I have been extremely happy. I feel guilty and have told no one about my happiness or the abuse. Is this normal?
A. Researchers conducted a study in which they interviewed widows at the time of the death of their spouse and again at six and 18-month intervals. Approximately 10 percent of the sample showed a change for the better following widowhood. This group had high levels of depression before the loss and lower levels at both follow-up intervals.
Most of the women in the 10 percent group were either in unhappy marriages or they were caring for a chronically ill spouse as you were. The women who were caregivers did much of their grieving before their husbands died. One patient I saw before the death of her spouse reported that she felt that his pain was her pain. He would scream in the middle of the night, and she would attempt to comfort him. Before long, she became ill from lack of sleep and constant stress.
After your husband’s dementia progressed, you lost him mentally and emotionally as well. Caring for someone with dementia is one of life’s most difficult challenges. Oftentimes, as in your case, the patient can appear somewhat normal with others, but become abusive with the spouse or caregiver. Others most likely did not observe the abuse you were experiencing. Therefore, you feel embarrassed to share your feelings of relief and freedom. When you do speak of it, you will be surprised to discover that many others have had similar feelings and experiences.
Your long-delayed happiness is perfectly normal. You did your grieving while your husband was alive. Feel no remorse and move ahead with your life.
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Nancy Ryburn holds a doctorate degree in psychology from Yeshiva University in New York City where she maintained a private practice for several years. She now teaches psychology at Southeast Arkansas College. If you have questions, e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org. The questions will not be answered personally, but could appear in a future column. There will be no identifying information and all e-mails remain confidential.