Joyce Carol Oates's new memoir, A Widow's Story, has raised some eyebrows because it leaves unmentioned the fact that, eleven months after the death of her husband of 47 years, she was engaged to the man who is now her second husband. I haven't read Oates's memoir (although I read the excerpt in The New Yorker), and I don't particularly care about the timing of her remarriage; life's short, different people grieve differently, etc. But from what I understand, the book focuses on the two years after her husband's death, and nowhere mentions her new relationship.
That's odd. And more to the point, it's a loss for our public understanding of grief, the past, and how we move on.
Longtime readers know that I'm fascinated by how we work through and incorporate the past into the present, and I'm especially interested in what this means for interpersonal relationships--including but not limited to romantic ones. We don't much talk about these things, the long shadows and continuing influences of people in our past. Or if we do talk about them, that talking is pathologized: you're still thinking about that? Girl, you need to get over it. Are you seeing a therapist? Because you clearly haven't moved on.
Our standard narrative goes like this: something happened, we got over it, we moved on, and now we're better off. But why does moving on, or being better off, require "being over" something or someone? If we're honest, we all know that change takes a long while, and that we continue to be shadowed by events from our past (from our family of origin, from our adolescence, from old friendships and old relationships) even while we're forging new and better ways of being. Indeed, those shadows are a necessary part of forging new ways of being.
I'm unsympathetic to readings of the past that imagine clean breaks, and I'm unsympathetic to any vision of human nature that views such breaks as desirable or even possible. Sure, there are good reasons not to rush into a new relationship right after an old one ends. But the urge to prescribe the newly-widowed or newly-single an "appropriate" length of mourning seems to have less to do with a fear that they might do something crazy or ill-advised than with our own wishful, semi-magical belief that such a period (six months? a year?) will be enough, will do it, will heal the person totally.
We do not wish to hear that the widow remarries quickly, because we take it as a sign that she wasn't really so very content in her long, companionate marriage. But we also, and perhaps even more strongly, do not wish to hear that the happily repartnered man still thinks about his ex daily, and somewhat wistfully--because we assume that means he's not really so happy in his new relationship (and would take back his ex in a minute if he could). Usually, neither is true. The past lives with us, sometimes for a long while, and not being "over" something has nothing to do with being unable to move forward.
I would have loved it if Oates had written a book about that: how it's possible both to be haunted by the past and to move on: fitfully, uneasily, but simultaneously.