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My Partner Still Displays Photographs of His Deceased Wife

Here's what I think about it.

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Wall of family photos, one with a remembrance wreath around it
Justin Rentería
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Are photos of your new love’s dead wife annoying you? My boyfriend still displays photographs of his late wife in his home, and it is okay with me because I still have a few photos of my deceased husband in mine. But what seems perfectly acceptable to us bothers — even infuriates — people who can’t imagine having “ghosts from the past” visibly intrude on a new relationship. Some consider it an impediment to a fresh start or a sign of being unable to “move on.”

It’s tricky territory. On the one hand, how lucky to find a new partner late in life. On the other, we bring a lifetime of baggage with us, both literally and emotionally. Ingrained habits, insecurities and expectations of all sorts abound.

Finding common ground depends on sensitivity to each other’s feelings — and communicating those feelings. With regard to photos of a deceased spouse the key is a few photos, not an enshrinement occupying walls, shelves and bedside tables — or serving as screensavers.

In our four years together, we’ve shuttled between his home in the country and my place in the city, both replete with furnishings, decor and mementos of lives and travels shared with someone else. The mates we loved and married passed away but will always remain a part of our lives. Boxing up their photographs and stashing them in the attic — out of sight, out of mind — wouldn’t change that. This is a new chapter in our lives that recognizes the past but in no way presents a template for our future together.

Early on we decided that in planning trips we’d avoid duplicating travel itineraries and experiences we’d enjoyed with our spouses. Occasionally we return to favorite restaurants and other haunts we'd been to with our mates but for the most part we search out new places and experiences to make our own. With the passage of time, our stages of grief have settled into tender memories neither of us wants to forget even as we embrace new bonds of love.

Our pasts are part of who we are and everything else that we bring to our late-in-life romance.

The fact that we’re like-minded on this issue puts us in a comfort zone of ease and empathy with each other. We’ve both been caregivers; there’s little either of us hasn’t personally witnessed and experienced with a loved one’s decline and passing. We’ve each accompanied the other to our mate’s gravesite, trips that might be too much for some people but that feel right for us. This certainly sets us apart from people who need to have every vestige of a deceased spouse expunged before embarking on a new relationship.

This second-time-around terrain is not new to me. When I met my husband nearly 40 years ago, he’d been a widower for two. Framed photographs of his young wife, who’d been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis the month they married, were visible throughout his house. He’d been her caregiver during progressive stages of an illness that never went into remission.

When we began dating, his grief and memories of her were still fresh, but he was also moving on with his own life. Her clothing and personal effects had been dispersed among family and friends. The only tangible presence of his deceased wife that remained in his home were some photographs.

Circumstances vary, and we can never know what goes on within an intimate relationship. A journalist friend surprised me with her very strong need to “wipe the slate clean." She did not want to compete with the "best memories of a deceased wife" or feel like her inadequate replacement. My friend insisted that the widower she was dating purge his home of all remnants of his married life before she moved in with him. He took it a step further and bought a new house that they decorated together. The two have now been married 18 years, so clearly her ultimatum didn’t quash their romance — and may have saved it.

The issue is clearly a divisive one. Google “my boyfriend still displays pictures of his deceased wife,” and you’ll find a world of dissenting opinions. Many are scathing and unforgiving, such as one harshly admonishing a widower that “keeping photos up makes her feel like some piece of meat that’s there to fill the hole in your heart.”

Ouch. Aside from stark red-flag warnings about what to be wary of when dating widows and widowers, you’ll also find some sensible guidelines for embarking on a new relationship.

· Respect grief, which affects everyone differently and has no timeline. Make space for it, particularly on special occasions — but don’t let it become central to your life in a new relationship.

· Understand that a new relationship will flourish if you make each other feel special and regarded as number one. An occasional anecdote about a deceased spouse is okay but not if it involves comparisons.

·  Be patient and avoid rushing a relationship with someone who is dealing with both the emotional toll of grief and the lingering (and seemingly never ending!) practical aspects involved in the death of a spouse. In the upheaval, photos and keepsakes are a comfort and the last items to be discarded.

· Display goodwill, knowing that if you move into the home of a widower, or spend time there, you'll see photographs and signs of a former marital life. Give it time.

Much of what my boyfriend and I cherish in our relationship — family, friends, memories, possessions, traditions — also were part of a life we shared with someone else. Memories of a former spouse shouldn’t be something one must hide or never speak about. For us, that “someone else” was a beloved, vital, much-admired mate who deserves not to be forgotten.

What would you think if your partner displayed photos of his deceased partner? Let us know in the comments below.

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