Remember how much you cared whether your parents liked your high school boyfriend or girlfriend? That is exactly how much your widowed parent (and his or her significant other) care whether or not you approve of their relationship--not at all. This can be a difficult truth when you've lost one parent, and feel your surviving parent pulling away from the family into a new relationship, but remind yourself that we each deserve to seek our own happiness. Parents of young children exist in the child's mind only to fulfill the child's wants and whims, and it is an important and crucial step as an adult to recognize your parent as a fellow adult with his or her own joys and sorrows, needs and wants.
Your parent may go through drastic changes throughout the dating process. Remember that your parent is trying to rediscover who he or she is. Your dad has been defined throughout your whole life through marriage to your mother, as father to you. Imagine how nerve-wracking and terrifying it must be to find yourself alone after many years of marriage, without a touchstone or witness to your life, all while mourning an immense loss, and try to have sympathy for your parent.
Your previously prudish mother who ran background checks on your high school boyfriend (and his parents) may decide it's a good idea to invite a man she met online to fly across the country and stay at her house for two weeks. While you may be thinking "Craigslist Killer," your parent is an adult, and can make his or her own decisions, or mistakes. Your parent may begin dating again just when you feel things have fallen into a new normal for your family after the death of your other parent. Though it can throw their children for a loop, it's a good sign that parents feel healed enough to date again. No one can replace your deceased parent, but your surviving parent deserves companionship and love.
Sometimes after a loss, the surviving parent reverts to a child-like role, relying on the adult child in ways he or she did not before. This can begin when the deceased parent grew ill and needed care, reversing the parent-child role, and transfer onto the surviving parent when they are in the depths of their mourning. This stage can be especially unpleasant when parents dive into a second adolescence as they begin dating, setting up the children in the unpleasant role of authority figure to rebel against. As fellow-adults, it is important to step back and let parents care for themselves.
A person dating a parent should aim for the role of friend, and possibly with time, "trusted advisor." Your deceased parent was one of two people, if you were lucky, who knew you and loved you unconditionally since birth. This new person dating your mom or dad will not fill those shoes. It's not the role they are auditioning for. Try not to dislike this new person simply for not being the parent you miss. If you do, you might miss out on a great friend, not to mention hurt your relationship with your surviving parent in the process.
Michael's mom died in a car accident when he was in kindergarten, and after many years his father met and married Samantha. He is grateful that his dad and he have Samantha in their family. For 20 years after his dad married Samantha she has helped him make his mom's famous gingerbread every year at Christmas, and he is grateful that his children have a wonderful grandma and grandpa. He is also appreciative that she and his dad can take care of each other as they age.
Getting to know your parent's new partner may be difficult while you mourn your deceased parent. Remember that getting to know someone takes time. Below are some tips for when your widowed parent is dating:
- Try to find good qualities about your mom or dad's significant other.
- Remember that your parent is human, and deserving of companionship and romance.
- Do not expect the new significant other to fill the role of your deceased parent.
- Aim for friendship. Stepparents are more like in-laws than parents and will need time to get to know your family.
- Welcome change. Assume the best intentions of your parent's significant other, and prepare for the family dynamics to be shifted.
The fact that your widowed parent is dating or has a significant other may take time to get used to, but the new partner may bring in welcome news of change, allowing your family to get out of staid patterns of grief. Also, while this person may never be like your deceased mom or dad, if they eventually marry, leave room for him or her to be your children's grandparent. For more about your parent's experience, watch Dr. Jill LaMorie and I discuss widowed parents on Open to Hope TV.
Just as life brings unexpected tragedies, it also brings gifts, and you may be surprised how much you grow to care for your parent's new partner.