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Marriage after Widowhood

February 13, 2020 | by Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt

When my wife died, I was certain I'd never find complete happiness again. Like Sheryl Sandberg, I was wrong.

Thirty days after Sheryl Sandberg lost her beloved husband, she wrote the following:

When people say to me, “You and your children will find happiness again,” my heart tells me, Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again. Those who have said, “You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good,” comfort me more because they know and speak the truth.

Well, it is five years down the road and Sheryl has recently announced her engagement. She said about her fiancé, "You are my everything. I could not love you more."

Second marriages after widowhood are challenging and I pray for her success. While every experience is different, I know how she felt when she said those words after her husband's death – because I felt the same when I lost my late wife, Elana. I was certain that I would never find complete happiness again.

But I also know what it means, like Sheryl Sandberg, to find someone else, someone different, but someone equally beloved. Second marriages after widowhood have a shadow hanging over them. But I am certain that feeling "pure joy again" is entirely possible.

I lost my first wife to cancer when she was thirty and I was thirty-five. I could not have asked for a more incredible twelve years of marriage. Yes, there were ups and downs, like all marriages, but when I look at the relationship as a whole, I would say that she was certainly my perfect match, my soul mate. We had the deepest and most loving relationship that I could possibly have hoped for. Perfect, with imperfection as an integral part of its perfection.

Could I ever find such love again? I didn’t know how I could live the rest of my life feeling so utterly empty.

So, when she passed away, I was certain that I would never find that again in another partner. You only get lucky once, right?

The pain of losing Elana was multi-faceted. The pain of loss of a loved one; the pain of loss of a wife; the pain that my children had lost their mother; the pain that she would not dance at her children's weddings; the pain that I had to live the rest of my life without her… and so much more. And one of the questions my pain led me to was: could I ever find such love again? I didn’t know how I could live the rest of my life feeling so utterly empty.

I spoke to a rabbi colleague of mine who had lost a first wife, also to cancer, and married again. He told me that his second marriage was completely different to his first, but every bit as satisfying. He loved his second wife differently, but equally. I was certain that he was just being kind, trying to give me something to cling onto, some hope to keep me going through the bleak, dark winter of my loneliness. I didn't believe that he could possibly be telling the truth. Either that, or his relationship with his first wife had not been so good. I was certain that I could never find in a second marriage what I had found in the first.

Well, I've been married to my wife, Chana, for seventeen blessed years. It seems like only a moment has passed. She is so very different to Elana, which means I am blessed with the impossibility of comparison. Comparing would be an anathema to me, yet at the same time, I know I am human and so I probably would if I could. It’s such a gift that I don’t have to put myself, Chana and the memory of Elana through that. My relationship is so very different and yet, equally fulfilling, equally satisfying, equally precious.

My relationship is so very different and yet, equally fulfilling, equally satisfying, equally precious.

The rabbi I spoke to has been fully vindicated. He was not merely giving me hope. He was speaking to a truth that I could only understand once I had experienced it for myself. The truth that the human heart, being of God himself, has room for an infinite amount of love – and that no love diminishes any other. In the same way that lighting a second light in a room will only enhance, not diminish a first. 

For the sake of those who are going through similar challenges, and I meet many, I thought I would share some of the issues we’ve come up against. Each relationship is different and must find its own unique way. But it is still useful to see that there is always a way and it’s waiting to be found.

For Elana’s children, Chana was their mother. This was possible because they were young. We stood by this firmly. We felt they needed a mother, not a step-mother. They needed a mother’s love in its entirety, not a surrogate love. And Chana has been able to do this without reservation. I often quote my son, Akiva, at his chuppah. Chana refused to walk him down the aisle with me. In her humble and unassuming way, she desperately wanted to, for his sake, but felt it was not her place to do so. Akiva said to her that since he had been a young boy, she had made him feel that he had a full and complete mother like anyone else. Now, at this most important moment of his life she was going to abandon him? Of course, we walked him to the chuppah together. 

I took Elana’s pictures down before Chana arrived and when she came into the home, she put them back up. Over the years, we found a balance. We wanted Elana’s presence in our home, but we wanted it in the background, especially once we had children who were not hers. So, we have one very beautiful picture of Elana, that is proudly displayed.

Our children are not "half" sisters and brothers. That term has no room in our family’s lexicon.

Our children are not "half" sisters and brothers. That term has no room in our family’s lexicon. And our older and younger children feel no difference between themselves. In fact, as I look at the bonds between my children, the strongest one that I see is between one of Elana’s and one of Chana’s kids. I can’t describe how much that means to me.

One of my favorite experiences, that happens quite regularly, is when Chana meets someone new and introduces one of the older kids as her son or daughter. I enjoy watching the person’s mind trying to figure out what is going on. With Akiva, for example, there is only a nine-year age difference, so clearly, she cannot be his biological mother. But most people sit politely in their confusion. Chana is usually happy to leave it at that; I’m always the one that puts them out of their misery!

No one wants a second marriage. It means that something went wrong. But things do go wrong. It’s part of life and the more we embrace that, the better we are able to ride through those "wrongs" of life. Of course, ultimately, there is no "wrong."; everything God does is perfectly right, even if it doesn’t always immediately seem so.

Making a second marriage work just as wonderfully as a first is daunting, but doable. Chana is my soul mate, just like Elana is. And here I was thinking you only get one!


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