Thirty days after Sheryl Sandberg lost a deeply 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.
Thank God, it is five years down the line and Sheryl has recently announced her engagement. I noticed that 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. It seems to me, however, that she might retract those words she said five years ago. But, whilst every experience is different, I very much know how she felt when she said those words at that time. Because I felt exactly the same when I lost my late wife, Elana. I was certain that I would never find complete happiness again in my life. But I also know what it means, like her, to find someone else, someone different; but someone equally beloved. I say again, second marriages after widowhood are challenging; they have a shadow hanging over them. But I am certain, and I speak from my own experience, that to feel ‘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, and some of the downs were REALLY down; but when I look at the relationship as a whole, without putting it under a microscope, 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.
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 multifaceted. 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 I had to live the rest of my life without her……and so much more. One of the questions my pain led me to, early on, was could I ever find such love again? Something of a selfish question to ask, perhaps, when Elana was certainly not going to; but, having loved so deeply and lost, I just 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 did not believe that he could possibly be telling the truth. Either that, or perhaps his relationship with his first wife had not been so good. But I knew, with utter certainty, that I could never find in a second marriage what I had found in the first.
As I write this, I have been married to my wife, Chana, for seventeen blessed years. It seems like only a moment has passed. She is so very different from 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 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. I can see that it would be exhausting. 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 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 and how we have done. My purpose is not that anyone learn from us; each relationship is different and must find its own unique way. I thought it might be useful to see that there is always a way and it’s always 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. 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 favourite 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, but I’m always the one that puts them out of their misery!
And that brings me to the single unresolved issue. Burial. When I buried Elana, I asked to buy three plots. I was thirty-five years old with four young children and, hard as it was to imagine, I figured that I would likely be marrying again. But the cemetery, in Jerusalem, does not allow a man to be buried next to two wives – which I do understand. So, I only have one plot. And it was expensive! I will, God willing, be buried next to Chana. No ifs or buts. But the empty plot is hard to ignore. In seventeen years, I have not figured out what to do with it. But I’m grateful that this is the only challenge on the horizon and ultimately, it’s resolvable once I find the resolve.
No one wants a second marriage. It means that something went wrong. But in the world we live, things 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. But I hope I have given some inkling as to how it is very much possible to make a second marriage work just as wonderfully, as a first. It is daunting, but doable. Chana is my soulmate, just like Elana was. And here was me thinking you only get one!