07/04/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Life After Loss

Q: I have a real problem with my kids and it really upsets me!

My husband, their father, died suddenly about ten years ago. My three boys were 12, 14, and 16 when he died. We were a happy family, or so I thought. My husband and I were devoted to our boys and we always put them first. In fact, our financial situation was always focused on saving money for them. Our belief was that we would have time to save for ourselves and our retirement as soon as we felt our boys' education and their future was secure.

Well, guess what? We never had the time for that. When my husband died unexpectedly, we were still in the middle of setting the boys up. That meant that my late husband's life insurance pay out went into trust for our kids as well as our savings up to that time. That meant that there was nothing left for me. I could use some of the trust money for my children's expenses, but for the most part, my own needs were not met.

I went back to work and raised three wonderful young men who are all on their way to independent and substantial careers and lives. They are not only earning their own money, but the trusts have kicked in, supplementing their incomes. They are all doing just fine.

I wish I could say the same for me. I know I risk sounding like I begrudge their financial security, but I don't. I do object, though, to their lack of awareness of the sacrifices I have made and -- maybe most important -- their inability to let me live my own, independent life. I have been dating a wonderful man for two years. Now that my youngest son has graduated from college, my boyfriend and I want to get married and begin a new life together. We want to travel. We want to move away from where we now live. We want to be free. My boyfriend has no children of his own and while he does appreciate my kids, it's time for our enjoyment, isn't it?

My boys, who I thought liked Bob, my boyfriend, now are finding all kinds of problems with him. They think he doesn't treat me well and they are downright rude to him. The boys aren't providing me with any financial support, so you would think they would be happy to know that someone is taking care of me. Not on your life. They just want to destroy my new relationship and take away the pleasure that I am having.


A: Usually, children are very happy when a parent is not a burden on them. They find it comforting when parents are occupied, so they can turn their full attention to building their own lives. Of course, the parental relationship never really ends and you can be sure that when a child needs a parent, no matter how old and independent the child may be, they easily revert to childish behavior, placing their relationship firmly back in the familiar parent-child dynamic. Most of the time, though, the child is content to focus on the construction of his or her own life and let their parents take care of their own needs.

Your children, though, are somewhat the exception to the rule. They are an example of what can happen when loss is truly untimely. They lost their father right at the beginning of adolescence. That's when boys especially need a father. They need a father to help them construct their emerging male identity and they need one to help begin the process of detaching from their mother - to be able to move from mom to a relationship with another woman or other women. This was a great loss for them, and one that you worked hard to lessen.

You, in effect became both parents for them since you were taking on the role of soother as well as bread-winner. Not only did they not have the opportunity to separate or to move away from you, but they in fact found themselves needing you even more as the only parent. In addition, since you and your husband took good care of them financially and you continued to do so on your own, your kids never had to grow up quickly and begin to take care of themselves. It does not appear that you put any pressure on them to help financially or perhaps in any other way. So, they were able to maintain their roles of children. They have grown to be good young men. But they have lost out on that precious and brief period when sons discover that they are not their mother's chosen favorite -another man is. For the average man, this realization encourages them to seek another woman as their primary relationship.

What does all of this mean? In your sons' case, it means that they want to you to remain in your role of mother, their primary financial and emotional provider. They had you exclusively. You did so much for them. They don't want to lose that. They never had to compete with their father for your love, so why would they want to compete with this new guy, Bob? These guys know - know unconsciously, that is - that another person has become your choice. You are choosing to go off with him rather than to stay with them. They need to stop that.

Your desire to be free and to move away, puts your kids back into that dreadful period when they lost their father. I suspect that they are not aware of it, but they are afraid to feel the pain they once felt when they realized that their father would never return. Separation from you is like a loss, a form of death. And in this case, the loss of you creates a "complicated mourning". This is when the pain of a loss is not limited to the immediate or current loss. Rather, the trauma of the loss is complicated and intensified by a previous loss. The situation feels too similar, too familiar. The urge is to change the present situation as they would have liked to have changed the original one - head off this loss (of you) and thereby avoid the previous loss (the death of their father). Since their father died suddenly, they felt a profound loss of control, an inability to do anything to make the situation better. What they hope for now is to exercise control of the present situation. If they block your marriage, they won't lose you. They won't feel the pain of your loss and of the old loss of their father.

This is an understandable unconscious strategy for them, but obviously one that doesn't work in real life. Not only will it not bring their father back, but it also doesn't show the love they actually do feel for you and their desire to see you happy. It is time for them to grow-up. They probably need to revisit their father's death, let go of the belief they could have probably done something about it, and move forward with the realization that they are not losing you. You'll always be their mom. Just make sure they call.