Visiting my husband’s wife’s grave

As featured in the Globe and Mail. It wasn’t an easy decision for our experience of love after heartbreaking loss being on the national stage. The back story of picture (and another perspective of the same shot, from an entirely different angle!) to the Globe and Mail article: Composting Heartbreak

J. took me to Carolyn’s grave on Sunday.  For the first time. He took me to the grave of his late wife.

I always thought that this might be space that would belong to him alone. I thought that he might want to keep some part of her private from me.  I live in the house she designed, and have moved into the kitchen she cooked in.  I still see her hand written labels on the red quinoa in the cupboard and on the frozen peaches in the freezer, and her handwriting is on the recipe card of family’s favourite cookie recipe. I have my clothes in the closet where hers used to be.  There are so many ways in which I have moved in where she was. I thought he might want to keep some space where he could be with her–space that I wasn’t in–space that continued to be theirs alone.

But when your husband asks you to go graveside, you go.  It’s the sort of thing you figure out later, but just say yes in the moment.

I think it’s part of us being married.  She was and always will be a big part of his life.  To be invited into the part of him that is still connected to her by visiting her grave is part of loving him by knowing his world.  It was a privilege that I was going to do my best to honour.

The air in the car changed on the way to the graveyard.  It became silent, a little stiff–definitely somber.  He was distant, remembering times past. I asked him once what he was thinking, and with a chuckle, he said that lately the triggers that brought her to mind happened when he entered the kitchen and the cupboard drawers were open. She always closed the cupboard doors when she was working. (I’m of the style of closing them once at the end…efficiency y’know?) He said the counters were often wiped while she working (yep…I’m one of those that wipes them once at the end).

He was careful to say it wasn’t criticism…just a way that he noticed she wasn’t around, and found himself getting wistful for her. She comes to his mind often…maybe sometimes I don’t ask him about her often enough.

We arrived. I watched, helplessly, as his whole body shook with the sobs of the brokenhearted as we approached the gravestone.

Gosh, he misses her.

I watched myself watching him that afternoon.  At one point, he said to her, “I will love you always”. And it struck me that I might have been jealous–but I checked myself and I wasn’t. I was just sad…so sad. The crappiness of cancer personified-they loved each other and were two-people-become-one–and then would be ripped apart when she died. It’s raw and harsh this stuff of grief. It’s wrong. It’s painful to watch…because I know it’s even more brutal to feel.

It’s an utterly helpless feeling to watch someone I love so deeply hurt so much…and I’m lost on the “right thing” to do in that moment. Do I, as his current wife, hold him as he grieves his late love or keep my distance and just silently witness his grief?


Just. Don’t. Know.

I have to say that sometimes my head and heart rather threaten to implode and explode simultaneously as I have the fun joy of being newly wed to an attentive, kind and loving man after a decade of being a single woman.  It’s delicious to be cared for after so many years of looking after myself all by myself. But I am aware that my happiness and our love only happened because of her death.

There was this cutely awkward moment when J spoke to her as he gestured towards me, “Carolyn, my wife…meet Carolyn, my wife.” He and I both chuckled a bit.  I like to think that she heard that, and smiled too.

It was an honour to spend time there.  An honour to watch him talk to her about himself and each of the Junior Tribe Members, putting a rose representing each of them in the vase on her marker as he spoke of them. He included a sprig of pink baby roses for the JTM that whose heart only beat for a few weeks of life. He talked about me too…and laid that rose on the marker near, but not in, the vase.

I wasn’t quite sure what to do, or how to be. There were clumps of wet grass and early fall leaves on her marker, messing up the stone.  It seems pathetically little to tidy up the marker…but it sorta seemed like something this door-closing, counter-wiping woman might appreciate.  I flicked the leaves, and rubbed away the grass. Yes, it was pathetically little.

Loving someone means that you will inevitable grieve for them; love is an engraved invitation for grief. Quote by Sunshine O

We came home in the evening, and he was tired. Wiped out.

But he said something really powerful to me that I hold as wisdom for myself:

“My missing her doesn’t diminish the love I have for you.
These don’t compete in my brain…I miss her a lot and I love you a lot.  I wish my sons had her as their mother still, and I’m so grateful they have you in their life now. I will always love and miss her…and I will always love and cherish you.”

I love J for a lot of reasons.  One of those reasons is his ability to feel big feelings as they are–he accepts them. He doesn’t try to fix, or judge, or shush one feeling in favour of another.  It doesn’t torture him to both grieve his past wife while he loves life with his current wife. He doesn’t have to let his grief go to love me, or put aside his love for me to grieve his love for her.

Wow, eh?

I’m learning from him on that.  I need to learn from him…because I love my life with him, and also so often wish that she hadn’t died…that J wouldn’t have this ache that is now a permanent part of his life, that her JTM’s would hear her laugh, feel her care, and be guided by her motherly wisdom…and that so many to whom she meant so much wouldn’t be living life without her. It’s hard to watch the man I love ache–and to wish he didn’t ache. But to know that for him to not ache–would mean I wouldn’t have him as my husband.

Confusing, but possible to hold at the same time.

I’m learning from him how to hold those big feelings together.

I’m thinking that if all of us had the ability to hold big feelings that are so different, and could feel those big feelings all at the same time, our world would be a different place…a kinder, gentler, more compassionate place. Without judgement, with quiet acceptance, with a knowing that it is possible…we could change our worlds.

For more:

Leap into Love

A letter to Car: Your husband

A letter to Car: You

A letter to Car: Your Friends

Tale of a Wedding: Part 1

Tale of a Wedding: JTM’s

The Ring

About the Widower’s Club that Husband belongs to: Growing and Grieving…The Widower’s Club

About marrying again: Were you happy being single?



  • Gloria B Kitchens

    Thanks for being transparent. You exhibited such wisdom and Grace fullness in your acknowledging his pain and being able to tolerate understanding and knowing that there is a silent place that he and his ex-wife has together. I think that was so powerful what he said to you, about she being the one that he will always love and miss and you being the one that he will always love and cherish and that his love for her doesn’t diminish the love for you.

    My husband visits his ex-wife grave and they have a memorial every year. At first he wanted me to come and be a part. I was frustrated and didn’t understand why. I finally went to a family meeting on the memorial anniversary and everyone talked about her. So I felt isolated sitting around listening to everyone talking about her and the fun they had and yeah I’m the new wife and this is all being said to my face, so I decided I wouldn’t go to any more memorials. He even said he wanted to be buried next to her and told the children as well. I often think he visits the grave because our relationship really isn’t a marriage.

    It’s been very difficult and horrible basically from the beginning, I believe he goes there wishing, hoping, dreaming, and praying that he wished he never married me, he wished I would be more like her, and I think sometimes he probably even tells her our problems or issues and it just makes me feel like he’s more comfortable going to the Grave than being with me.

    Otherwise I would not have a problem with him visiting. I just don’t believe that he’s visiting with the right mindset versus visiting with the mindset of longing for her to still be his wife, although he tries to convince me otherwise his actions just don’t add up.

    I know that I would feel differently if we were actually getting along and if we actually had a really good marriage or at least we’re able to be open and honest with one another but we’re not.
    I have been very patient with him he was still in the Grieving state. When I married him he assured me he wasn’t however I found out that he was not through his actions and words and he finally admitted. So I’ve been very patient with him for the last 8 years.

    When I first moved into the house I even let her name and picture stay on the refrigerator until he decided to move it. I didn’t move any major items around the house only to clean or and when we clean the house fully I made sure I put keepsakes together for him. I was very patient in cleaning out the house he had not realized how his actions affected me.

    And even though I still do not choose to go to their memorial meetings he still makes it a point to go and sometimes he’ll try to Edge me on to go. Most of the time he acts like he’s only doing it for the children but I know he’s doing it for himself this is where the honesty and Deception comes in. I believe if he was just more honest with me I could really accept these.

    I do understand where you’re coming from as far as your view and I’m so glad I came across your article. I will focus on this and look at it from your perspective from this point forward. I hope that helps me to realize that he actually does love me. It’s just that he loves her more or longer.

    They were married for 28 years and according to him they had a really great marriage so I understand I am the second woman. I’ve always known that but I just want him to not actually show that I’m the second woman.

    He still makes references to his deceased wife and comments are in his writings. I tried to get him to say former wife but he constantly says my wife passed (I dnt want anyone to assume he’s talking about my passing) so I think he’s still not there but he’s not wanting to admit it.

    Because he’s not wanting to admit it, that brings a lot of issues and troubles between us., because I’m aware he still needs help and he believes that he’s okay.

    • Carolyn Klassen

      Hi Gloria…I hear such pain and empathy and longing in your comment. Wanting to be compassionate with your husband in his loss, but very much not wanting to feel that you are competing with (and losing) to his late wife. That sounds so hard…to feel like he wishes he was with her and not you is such a terribly lonely feeling. Thanx for sharing. In some ways, our stories are similar…and in other ways, our stories are so very different. Husband accepts her death…he misses her, but he has let her go, and now lives fully in the present with me. She released him the day before he died, which I think was very helpful for him. Thanx again for sharing your story!

  • jen m

    This is beautiful. Thank you.

    • Carolyn Klassen

      You’re welcome! Thanx for letting me know of your reaction!

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