Why do I long for my late husband while my current one ails? | Ask Philippa

The question My problem isn’t really that serious, but may become so if I don’t get advice on how to deal with it.

I’m in my late 70s, in reasonably good health and married for the past 30 years to a very kind and loving man who is now 90. He’s still OK, but needs more looking after, which I do want to do for as long as I can. But why do I keep thinking about and longing for my first husband, who died after six years of marriage in a car accident more than 35 years ago?

I have two children in their 40s and so does my present husband. We all get along really beautifully and I am grateful. I’m so fortunate to be loved by all. But why do I still long for my first one – and even dream about him – when I have what I need? I’m calm and accepting about being in the final years of our lives and I’m not afraid of death because of my religious beliefs.

Philippa’s answer I expect your positive attitude and stoicism have stood you in good stead and it sounds like you know how to love and to live. You appreciate family and you have always done so. But you are a little puzzled by dreams and unbidden thoughts of your first husband coming to mind.

The clinical psychologist Mary Lamia wrote: “An ongoing internal relationship to the image of the deceased is an important aspect of mourning and a normal part of healthy adaptation.”

It sounds as if you are transitioning to another phase of your life due to your present husband’s increasing need for care, and that because of this you need the extra comfort of the internal relationship with your first husband.

I wouldn’t think about your dreaming and longing for him as a bad thing, but instead see the internal bond you have with him as a source of comfort and support.

In the external world, your first husband is no longer with you and I imagine that must be difficult to reconcile with the feeling that he still has a place and a presence within you. It is normal to use fantasy or memories to maintain the presence of someone lost in order to help us to maintain that internal relationship we have with them.

When a relationship changes from that of lovers to companions, and then to carer or cared for, there will also be losses to mourn. Just because you expect and accept the changes does not mean they do not create a void within you that your psyche will try to fill. It is natural that that gap may fill with dreams and longing.

Your first husband may have died many years ago, but this does not mean you do not still miss him. You may not have had him always at the forefront of your mind, but he has returned. This is bereavement. It isn’t a neat, tidy parcel that is over in five years and comes in recognisable stages. It can come in waves and even if the sea has been calm for a long while that doesn’t mean a storm won’t come in from time to time. It’s OK, be kind and accepting of yourself in your longing.

It isn’t only our relationships that change with age. It can also mean the loss of mobility, needing to rest more and not being able to do what you may have previously taken for granted.

However philosophical you are about these changes, if you think about them, they involve loss, too. How natural, then, to long for a time in your life when you were younger, vital, in love. Why would you not dream about your first husband who will be forever the age he was when he died? Consciously, you are accepting your present role and situation with love and grace, but your unconscious – well, I think it wants to be seen by you.

You might think it would be dangerous, somehow, to acknowledge the losses you experience, but I wonder whether your stoicism is why these dreams and thoughts creep in unbidden. I notice, too, that you label your problem “not really serious” as if you are not entitled to have feelings other than gratitude for your present life. Perhaps you fear if you were to allow yourself sorrow it would turn on a tap that you would not be able to turn off. But I think you have good control over that tap. It has more settings than just on or off. You can turn it on just a little bit. You are allowed to mourn the passing of youth and middle age, you can miss your first husband even though you have a second one, and you can sigh over the fact that your role is changing to that of carer.

If you acknowledge these changes and stages in your life and the effect they have on you, I wonder if your subconscious would not need to knock so hard demanding to be listened to. I think you’ll be able to stop the tap dripping unbidden if you take control of it from time to time, dare to open it a little and release some of the pressure. You know about control, you will be able to turn it off again, especially if you practise.

Recommended book Grief Isn’t Something to Get Over: Finding a Home for Memories and Emotions After Losing a Loved One by Mary C Lamia (£20.50, APA)

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