Caregiving, Reflections

July 12, 2021

Navigating Grief throughout my Relationship

Michelle Willowjak Navigating Grief
I'm WillowjakMama!

My blog started as a way to document my journey to wellness, but turned into a place to be inspired by others through our collective messy & authentic stories. Now it's my favourite place to be.

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A new relationship gives us feelings like none other. You smile more. You get excited about that phone call or text message; you look at your phone periodically waiting for that “good morning”message or check-in. You get giddy as you get ready for your dates; you prep and preen and always look your best for them. Being in a new relationship makes you feel beautiful and wanted and you can’t wait to tell people about your new love interest, and meet the people most important to them! A new relationship can often bring out the best in you and you love being with them; just the two of you! It is also amazing to plan the next stages and phases as the relationship progresses. It’s exciting to think of moving in together, combining family traditions ,or even making new ones. Each bringing your own house contents and buying new ones that fit your collective taste. It is a joyous time! It is a whole whirlwind of emotions, but I think we can agree that it is one of the greatest feelings ever; to fall in love!! I know for me it was! What I wasn’t expecting was the level of grief that I would experience in my relationship at the same time all these amazing emotions were happening.

Good grief! Is that a thing? I don’t think so! I’ve experienced my fair share of grieving in my short life here on this planet, and though I’m grateful as it has made me grow into who I am, the process is the worst! The ups and downs of shock and denial, guilt, anger, depression and acceptance would send the most sane, insane! As I have evolved in my relationship with my fiancé, I have also realized that my role as his girlfriend and then into becoming his fiancé has also been an evolution of grieving. The truth is, I fell in love with someone and it’s never been just us! The grief I have experienced is because the course of our relationship was not a natural progression of two people meeting, getting married and having children. Some things were backwards in timing and some things never happened. I have to say, this wasn’t a grief that I was ready or prepared for. This was a level of grieving that I think most would be embarrassed or ashamed to admit, I know I certainly am.

When my fiancé and I met, we would go out on dates that were planned in advance. There was very little spontaneity in our relationship, because he had to get home to the kids or had plans with them. It was hard to know when he would have time for me. There were very few sleepovers, because he wanted to be there when the kids woke up in the morning. He would make them breakfast and get them off to school daily and being there for them to start their day was always important to him. I couldn’t spend my nights off work with him, because he was working or taking the kids to their extracurriculars. My fiancé was at every single practice and performance and when there’s three kids, that’s hard to juggle without a new relationship in the mix. Once I met the kids, our time together was often with them and it wasn’t romantic time alone. Our relationship was never just he and I. In the newness of a relationship, most would say the long intimate talks into the night, the romantic dinner dates and the time spent doing things together were what made them know that they were “the one”. We didn’t have that super often. That was a loss that I wasn’t prepared to have to work through. As I fell in love with him, I felt sad about not feeling like a priority to him but pushed it off and said to myself, “one day I’ll be more important to him, for now I think it’s great that he puts his kids first” (because, if I was going to be with a parent, that’s exactly the kind of person and parent that I would want to be with!) I was able to work through it in my mind because it made sense to spend time together, with the kids in tow, because we wanted to make sure the chemistry was there when we spent time all together. However, as I gained all these people in my life, I experienced the loss of a relationship with just the two of us, simultaneously.

As time moved on, and we moved in together, I brought my things with me. My things were all purchased by me when I left my ex and so, I felt really excited about having things that were my taste and my own! No memories attached to any of them! When my fiancé brought his things to the house, some of them weren’t just his. Some of his things once belonged to him and his ex. Though they were just “things”, it was a hard pill to swallow. Damn! Just another thing that I had to grieve. I was so excited to move in with him, but I wouldn’t get the excited feelings of buying things together (I mean over time we have purchased things that are both of ours and our taste together, but the initial stage was not there). It’s one thing to have things gifted to you from a family member, or receive hand-me-downs from your parents. It’s one thing to have furniture and items that have belonged to someone before you, but to think about sitting on a couch that your boyfriend’s ex-wife once called her couch or eating off of plates that you know they shared family meals with is just really hard. I luckily didn’t have to sit on a couch or eat off plates that once belonged to my fiancé and his ex-wife, but I can only imagine how many new girlfriends have experienced this. The difference being that, when the new girlfriend says to their new boyfriend “I’m not comfortable with having this in the house because of x,y,z” it’s usually received well and that new couple make adjustments to make everyone feel comfortable. We made choices about the house based on what the kids needed, like being close to their schools, even though that meant it being inconvenient for me and my work location. In my case, on many levels, I didn’t voice my concerns and worked through this grief on my own because with all the transitions, I wanted the kids to have familiar things in their home to feel comfortable. I wanted them to be surrounded still by their friends. I knew that the children were more vulnerable to these hardships than I was, but it genuinely made me feel uncomfortable, a tad irritated and a little sad.

I was so excited to share holidays with this man. He loves holidays as much as me! Spending time together as a family is as important to him as it was to me as well! Having no family here in Alberta, I was really excited to have family to share special occasions with. I remember the first Christmas where I was living with my fiancé, we were decorating the Christmas tree at the kid’s Granny’s house. As we pulled out hand-made ornaments and cute little family decorations, we came across many with my fiancé’s ex’s name on them. My fiancé’s Mom decided to put them on the tree. At the time, I was shocked and hurt. I know that she did it to make the kids feel that their Mom was not taboo in the house and to make them comfortable with keeping family traditions. However, this was again a time that I was left grieving the loss of what could and would have been a new way of celebrating Christmas. It was a time when I felt like my feelings and my thoughts about what Christmas could mean weren’t considered. Again, I kept my mouth shut about feeling uncomfortable because, I knew that the kids needed consistency and acceptance. For me it was yet another opportunity for me to grieve the loss of what I wanted as new Christmas traditions, or the loss of developing and creating family traditions together with my fiancé. Though I have been able to voice some of my needs and desires to share some of my own family traditions, for the most part, there hasn’t been a consolidation. My traditions have basically gone to the way-side and I have amalgamated myself into traditions that were already set by the family before me. It’s a time where I feel like an outsider in my own home. The loss of what I wished for, for holidays, was challenging to trudge through. Though I love the traditions that my fiancé’s family has, that grief was and is still hard.

I always saw myself as a little Mom in the making, from the time I was really young. I was always drawn to kids and found myself sitting at the kids table long into adulthood. I was always nurturing and attentive to kids and always wanted to be a Mom. When I met my fiancé, he told me very early on that he wasn’t sure if he wanted more kids but that he would be open to talking about it for the right person. A few major life events later and that was off the table for us! The next obstacle to grieve was the loss of my opportunity to be a biological Mother. This has been the hardest pill to swallow. I have been reminded over and over by people that “you’re not the kids REAL Mom”, or “when are you going to have your OWN kids”. It is a constant reminder of this loss for me. I have now come to terms with the fact that this is not in my cards, but it still makes me sad. I have had to grieve the loss of the fact that my fiancé and I would never share that bond. That I would never experience that major life event with him. I have grieved the fact that we are really compatible parents together now with the three we have, and I know we would “rock” doing it together with a child that we would have shared biologically. I have grieved the fact that the kids will not naturally say my Dad and Step-Mom’s house, and it will just be “my Dad’s house” forever. I have grieved the fact that I may always be an after-thought in birthday presents and plans with the kids. I have grieved the fact that when I am old and grey that they may not consider taking care of me as they would their biological parents. I know that every involved Step-Mom has experienced this grief and I know it really, really, REALLY, sucks. Life as a parent is really busy. Biological or not! We have the kiddos for 7 of the 10 school days. This means a lot of running around during the week. This also means that at different points in my relationship that I have moved my entire work schedule around this to accommodate juggling the kids and their needs when we have them. This has also meant working more when we don’t have the kids. This in turn has meant that my fiancé and I do not have a lot of alone time. It means that the time that he and I do have together is when we have the kids. To most parents reading this, you’d say, “well yeah, that’s parenting lady insert eyeroll” and I completely agree. However, this is another time when I have had to grieve the fact that I have met someone where we have never been at the centre of our family. I am with someone where it has never just been the two of us. From the very beginning the kids have always been the centre of how we operate. I have had to grieve the loss of what a relationship would or could be like if he and I were at the centre of this entire operation. Some of you may read this and think “well, he needs to make time for you”. This is easier said than done. For a man whose entire life and world has been his kids, asking him to go out with me when we have the kids, when in his opinion is already not enough time with them; it’s not going to happen. For now, I have let go of going away on a week long, all-inclusive vacation because I know he would not leave the children for those extra couple days. I have grieved the loss of having him all to myself in the way that a typical relationship would happen.

My experience in my relationship with my fiancé has been full of disappointment, sadness and being uncomfortable. It has also been of intense love, respect, compassion and understanding. I think this is how a lot of Step-Parents feel. My relationship has been full of laughter, amazing memories and deep connection. I have a lot of love and respect for him and I know he has a lot of love and respect for me too. I have never blamed the children for any of these feelings. They have never been the cause of my internal turmoil. This has been an individual struggle and a struggle within my relationship. I have needed to learn to express my feelings, no matter how uncomfortable it is in the moment. I have learned to be kind and patient with myself as I have navigated hard and big feelings about grief. I have needed to learn how to be compassionate to the kid’s needs while still giving a voice to myself and I continue to try and learn how to balance the two. Grief is hard. It pulls out the worst in you and it makes the people around you uncomfortable. It makes you adjust and adapt to what’s going on around you. I think the biggest lesson I have learned is to give a voice to it though. Yes, it is so hard to say this out loud! I feel like a monster saying that I have had to grieve all of these things in my relationship. I am a bit embarrassed to make these things known to the public. But, if I’m feeling it, I figure someone else out there is feeling it too. I figure that if this is the conclusion that I’ve come to about the uncomfortable parts of my relationship and the fact that I have been grieving the loss of things within my relationship, I assume that others are grieving that too. The shock, denial, guilt, anger, depression and acceptance that I have walked within this relationship is very prevalent. It is hard and raw and very real to me. As I have learned to give these uncomfortable feelings the name of “grief”, I have been a lot kinder to myself when I have been a bit of a jerk, ok fine, a big old jerk!

“Little by little, we let go of loss…but never of love.” – Anonymous

Michelle Devine

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Willowjak Blog 

My blog started as a way to document my journey to wellness, but turned into a place to be inspired by others through our collective messy & authentic stories. We chat about themes that are often ignored and voices that aren't often given a chance at the mic. Now it's my favourite place to be. 

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