Q: I am an older guy with grandchildren. My wife of 50 years died less than a year ago after a long illness and I was devastated. I've been lucky enough to find a lovely woman, Janet, who also lost her husband, and we plan to eventually marry. We both have grandchildren and I have begun referring to Janet as "Grandma" when I am with all the grandchildren, both hers and mine. Recently I spent the day with my grandchildren and referred to Janet as Grandma. My oldest granddaughter was furious. What's good ex-etiquette?
A: Although many seniors who lose their spouses start their mourning when they realize their spouse is terminally ill, other younger family members do not face the loss until it actually happens. Your oldest granddaughter has the most memories with her grandmother and is just now facing her loss. Since she's at the beginning of her mourning, it sent up a red flag when you referred to another woman as Grandma so soon after her grandma's passing. She questioned your allegiance, and as a result, rather than promote your new partner, it appeared to discount Grandma. I've seen things like this prompt family members to go on a personal crusade against the new partner. Although you may feel grateful for having two loves in your life, without the proper preparation, your relatives might see you as being selfish and insensitive. Ironically, your ability to move on quickly is actually to your deceased wife's credit. Research tells us that people who have lost a spouse after a happy marriage are the most likely to marry again.
I've worked with many grandchildren in the situation you describe, and most confide there are two things they want to hear: One, that your new love will not try to take Grandma's place. Two, that you will never forget Grandma now that you have met someone new. And, just telling your granddaughter, "I will never forget your grandma," may not be enough to sooth her pain. You have to prove by demonstration that Janet is a loving companion, but not a replacement. Talk to the family about how lucky you feel to find love again, but do not openly compare Janet and your deceased wife. Don't be afraid on occasion to reminisce about jokes between grandma and the grandkids or discuss special memories. Janet should be having the same sort of conversations with her grandchildren, as well.
Finally, it may be good to sit down with the younger grandkids and figure out a unique pet name they can call Janet (and that Janet's grandkids can call you). Keep the conversation light-hearted, and don't be afraid to look to the older grandkids for suggestions, particularly the oldest one who has the most special memories. Be as sensitive as you can be to all. That's good ex-etiquette.
Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation, and the founder of Bonus Families, bonusfamilies.com. Email her at [email protected]