Ryan & Jessica Ronne: Widowhood and Forming a New Family
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Remarriage after widowhood creates unique struggles. Listen to Ryan and Jess Ronne, parents and stepparents to 8, share with Ron Deal about how insecurities can create conflict in a new marriage after widowhood and how to overcome those struggles.
Ryan & Jessica Ronne: Widowhood and Forming a New Family
Dave: Here's a question you don't think about every day. Get ready.
Ann: Oh, should I brace myself?
Dave: Yes, sort of—I haven't been thinking about this—but you know I just had this thought, like, “If you passed away…” [Laughter] That's what I mean.
Ann: This is where we're going today?
Dave: Yes; if you were not alive—and it could go the other way—but I'm just going to pretend: if you passed away, would you consider it an honor, or would you be offended, if I got remarried?
Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife—
If you passed away, would you be offended if I got remarried?
Ann: I think I go one of two ways—I can think—“Oh, were you so happy that I'm gone, and now, you're going to get remarried?” or “Did you love marriage so much that you couldn't wait to get married again?”
Dave: I just want to know if you think it's a good thing or a bad thing.
Ann: You're asking: is it a compliment when someone gets married after their spouse is deceased? I would see it as a good thing/a compliment, because they had a good taste in their mouth of marriage.
Dave: Yes; I think, if there's somebody that could probably answer this question better than us, it's our blended family director, here, at FamilyLife, Ron Deal. Ron is in the studio with us today, so welcome to FamilyLife Today, Ron.
Ron: Hi guys. It's always good to be back with you.
Dave: So answer that question, Ron.
Ron: Well, you know, I think it depends on the person; but you know, there was a famous quote, where somebody said, “The highest compliment you could pay to somebody is that you would want to get married again.” As if, just like Ann said, “You so enjoyed marriage, because of your time with that person before they passed away, that you would want to pursue marriage again.”
Flip it around: “What if you left a bitter taste in their mouth?—and marriage with you was difficult and the last thing they want to do is get married again? Well, that's not a compliment.
Dave: And the truth is—you would know better than any of us—this happens quite often. You know, a spouse dies—a family, or a husband or wife get remarried; now they're blending—if there's kids involved, an entire new family.
Ron: Yes, Dave, it happens pretty frequently. I think, a lot of times, when we talk about blended families, we just sort of assume somebody got divorced beforehand; but that's certainly not always the case. In fact, the FamilyLife Blended® podcast, that we're going to be listening to a portion to today, I interviewed a couple, Ryan and Jess Ronne, who were both widowed—actually, lost their first spouses to the similar sort of brain cancer—and so found themselves each blogging about their grief, and then found one another in the process, and got married.
Jess is an author, by the way; she's written a couple of books. Her latest is called Blended with Grit and Grace, and that was the subject of our conversation.
Dave: So let's listen in.
[Previous FamilyLife Blended Podcast]
Ron: Tell us a little bit about your family.
Jessica: Well, I guess it all started in 2010 when we both lost our first spouses to brain cancer. I blogged from Michigan; Ryan blogged from Oklahoma. A stranger, who followed both of us from Pennsylvania, reached out to me and said, “Hey, there’s this grieving widower. He has three young children. I just think you could really be a source of encouragement to him”; and the rest is history.
We started emailing, and we met. We were married within a year. He moved to Michigan. We adopted each other’s kids, and we thought we were going to just live happily ever after; however—[Laughter]
Ron: Then, there’s the “however…” [Laughter]
Jessica: There’s a lot more to the story when you are a blended family or, probably, any family really. We ended up moving to rural Tennessee a couple of years after we were married; had another baby together, our Annabelle.
Ron: She makes number eight; right?—child number?
Jessica: She does—yes—eight children. We lived what we thought was a simple life, out in rural Tennessee, until it wasn’t all that simple anymore. We have a child with profound special needs and autism. As he aged, it just became more and more difficult. We moved towards Nashville, thinking that would help remedy the situation, and there would be more resources and support for him, and just found, really, that the South is really lacking in anything for special-needs families.
We are in the process of moving back to Michigan right now. We’re actually in a temporary home and building an accessible home for our family to live in the future.
Ron: So listener, you just got a snapshot of this family story. We have a lot to unpack; don’t we? Let’s just back up and start unpacking a little bit at a time.
Jessica, in your book, you say that you met Ryan—you were drawn to him—and then you realized one day that you were grieving one person while simultaneously falling in love with another. I bet both of you were going through a similar journey there. I’d like for us to just unpack both sides of that: the grieving one-person side and the falling in love with the other person side. Let’s just start with: “Who were you grieving?” and “What’s that backstory?”
Jessica: Well, I was grieving my late husband, Jason. He had gone through his cancer journey for three years. In the middle of that, we were raising four children—actually, had an unexpected pregnancy in the middle of all of it as well—and raising Lucas, our son with special needs. Honestly, I had kind of worked through a lot of the stages of grief, I believe, by the time he actually passed away; because it had been such a long, painful journey for our family. There was a deep sadness when he passed away; but I think there was also something in me that was at peace, that he was no longer in pain and suffering, and that cancer wasn’t a task master in my life anymore; because that’s really, really hard when you have four kids under six.
I think I was in a healthier place than Ryan was—and I’ll let Ryan dive into that a little bit—by the time my husband passed away, because it had been so long. But I think I jumped into a relationship with Ryan, feeling like my grieving was pretty much all wrapped up in a nice little bow, and I was ready to move on in life. Parts of me were ready, but there were also parts that would spring up out of the middle of nowhere. Like, one example I can think of—brushing my teeth at night—and looking over at the other sink, thinking that sink would never be used again, because that was Jason’s sink; and like there sat his [Ryan’s] toothbrush and his toothpaste. It was working through some of that.
All I can say for myself is we probably should have gotten some therapy. I know we used each other as therapists, early on; and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that. It brought out a lot of feelings of insecurity and jealousy as we talked about these people we had loved; but yet, we were falling in love with each other. It was just a really strange place to be.
Ron: As you’re talking, I’m reflecting on all those different elements. Again, so much there to unpack—and we will—we’ll slow down and take a look at each of those little elements.
I think, for the listener, the observation that I just want to make is that any significant losslike the loss of a spousehas so many layers to it; there’s so much involved in it. The length of time that you were grieving actually before he passed away versus somebody whose loss is a little bit shorter or sudden: all of those things influence you, the kids, the journey; and they all have to be unpacked.
Sometimes, when you’re listening to somebody else’s story, you’re thinking, “Well, that’s sort of like mine, but not completely like mine.” Well, yes, nobody’s story is exactly like yours. It’s okay to absorb what you’re hearing today and grab the elements that you can really relate to.
Ryan, it sounds like your story of loss was different than hers.
Ryan: Yes, it was very different. With my first wife, we had our third child in December of 2009; and just a month after, she started getting headaches and feeling really uncomfortable. We just thought it was pregnancy related; you know, just had a baby. But just a week after her 30th birthday, they diagnosed her with a brain tumor. Within weeks, it hemorrhaged; and she was never the same. She was diagnosed middle of March, and April 1st, she had the hemorrhage—lost a lot of her cognitive skills, and in and out of the hospital, just for what?—four months—and then she passed away in August.
I had an eight-month-old. I hadn’t even taken a breath, or even thought about death, or what’s next. It was like I was living—trying to help raise the three kids; and basically, be a caretaker and a caregiver for my late wife—and then it was done. I was kind of lost. Honestly, when Jess and I started talking, I was looking for an ear to try to get through this; because I really was struggling, and not understanding why, and all of the questions that you have for God.
Just a couple of weeks, I think, after she passed away, my oldest son actually said to me: “Dad, when are we going to get a new mom?” Like he already knew that that space needed to be filled. I hadn’t/it hadn’t even crossed my mind. I think I prayed that night and just said, “God, You’re going to have to help me, because I’m not looking to that at all.” When Jess and I met, it was like God just opened this door in my heart, that said, “There’s room for one more.”
As we got married, and got closer together, it’s like: “You can’t really share that. I can’t share those feelings with her; and at some point, I’ve got to let that go.” That was really hard. Our first year of marriage, we did try to be each other’s therapist, and there was a point when we finally just said, “No more. Let’s go seek somebody else out to share this stuff with, because this isn’t fair to each other.”
Ann: So Ron, we heard them say a couple times that they used each other as therapists after losing their spouse. Now, is that an advisable thing to do?
Ron: No; it's not.
Ron: And they, in hindsight, admitted that; and I think that's really good. I/what I would just say to somebody, who's listening right now: “No, you don't want to find a new love interest and make them your counselor,”—
Ron: —like kind of carry all of your baggage, and pain, and grief—and pour it out on them and expect them to be able to help you through that. It really is advisable to spend time grieving, not with this person—with an objective person: a counselor, a friend, a pastor—somebody you could really just pour it all out there with, and they don't have a dog in the hunt. They can be honest with you, and you can just sort of work through your grief without any agendas attached to it. That's very important.
Dave: I can imagine, though, it's pretty common for a grieving husband/a grieving wife to end up finding somebody that has similar grief. Again, you know better than I would; but I would guess that happens quite often. Sometimes they end up married; sometimes they don't. But it's just like you’re attracted to one another, because you've gone through something similar; and you can share a common bond.
Ann: And you're thinking: “They get me,”—
Ann: —“They get it.”
Ron: I love it, though, when people get objective about this. I’ve got to tell you—since this podcast came out—we had a woman from the UK contact us and said: “We were listening to that podcast. I'm dating a man. He is newly-widowed; it's only been a few months. After listening to the podcast, and the Ronnes talk, we decided that we needed to not date right now. He needs more time to grieve the passing of his first wife; I need a little more space. I need to not be his helper/get caught up into that; and so we're just going to take a break. After a year, we're going to reconnect and decide whether we're in a better place and maybe start dating again.” I’ve got to tell you: there is so much wisdom in that.
Dave: That's hard to do though.
Ron: It is.
Dave: But that's maturity.
Ann: I think it's also helpful for your kids, as they’re grieving as well, and walking through some of the same pain.
Ron: Yes; and that was a great toss, Ann, because the next section is kind of about helping kids grieve.
[Previous FamilyLife Blended Podcast]
Ron: At this point—ten years—looking back at that first year, you were looking for something in the other that you now feel like was inappropriate. What were you looking for? What were you needing the other person to give you?
Jessica: I think, in a lot of ways, we’d often seek validation even—we shared everything: the good, the bad, the stuff that we didn’t necessarily like in our first marriages; and seeking validation for: “That was kind of strange in that marriage; wasn’t it?”—sort of thing. [Laughter]
Like I can think of one example: we would both go to bed without our first spouses. Entering the new marriage, neither one of us particularly liked that trait in our previous relationships. We kind of discussed it; and we were like: “We don’t want to bring that to this relationship. Let’s always try to go to bed together,” type of thing.
We overshared—like I know way too much about her and Ryan knows way too much about Jason—those should have been sacred memories to that relationship. We just went too far, and that would kind of haunt us in the coming years. Ten years in, we’re over it.
Ron: So there’s an upside and a downside to sharing.
Ron: The upside might be, in the immediate, you get that validation that you’re looking for about some feeling you had about the previous marriage; but the downside is, then, it sort of burdens the current relationship with now thoughts of seeing the other person with their former spouse; that type of thing?
Jessica: Right; yes. I mean, looking back to it, it’s all tied to insecurity. He and I didn’t have enough time to have a shared history together; so what our conversations tended to gravitate towards were these shared histories we had with these other people, which does bubble up these insecurities. Then you have the whole rest of the world, who has this model of: “Never speak ill of the dead.”
So us sinful people, in a sinful world, in a relationship that we’re trying to figure out—and everybody else in the whole world is looking at these two people, who passed away; and they’re now on pedestals of perfection, which we can never live up to—it’s just all of this stuff that, had we had somebody come alongside us, and help us work through some of that, I think it would have been really beneficial.
Ron: If you were talking to somebody, Ryan, right now, who’s listening—who is widowed, perhaps single, or perhaps in a new marriage/blended family situation—what advice would you give them about sharing, regarding previous spouse?
Ryan: I think that’s really a difficult question. I think therapy is really key to that; because when you first meet somebody, they’re more open-minded to: “Yes, sure; I want to know everything; and then, it’s like: “Whoa, whoa, whoa. No, I didn’t want to know that. [Laughter] No, no, no; except for that.” So I think—
Jessica: Or it gets thrown back into your face in an argument, like, “You said she did this…” [Laughter]
Ryan: That’s when I shouldn’t/that’s the hard—that’s where the difficulties come in is when you have to—you feel like, “Well, I’m not good at that,”—what he was good at. Or it’s vice versa; and it’s like: “Now, I have to try to live up to that,” or “I’m going to be constantly compared to that.” I think the best thing is to communicate, early on, in those relationships, and just be cautious.
You wouldn’t talk about your ex-es before you got married the first time very openly. But I think, as we were married—and happily married—we felt like permission to share all the good stuff. It’s like, “Oh, well, they’re sainted now; and they can do no wrong”; and they can’t even defend themselves, so it was a challenge.
Ron: One of the things I’m hearing you say—this is something we’ve talked about on this podcast before—I call it: “The color of your us.” If I could just give you a simple illustration, and then I’d love for you guys to just react to what I hear you saying.
“The color of your us” is a combination of who two people are when they get married. If you’re yellow, and you marry red; well, your “us” is orange; right? It’s some combination of the two of you—your personalities, your temperament, your giftings—and then your “us” is that working out of: “How we do life together.” It’s not only our togetherness, and our passion, and our connectedness—but it’s also our style, and our ritual, and just the little details of life—and how we work out how we go to bed together, whether you go first, or I go first—that’s all a part of: “The color of your us.”
Well, you’re used to orange; because you were yellow, you married red, and you had orange. You’re still yellow when you move into a second or subsequent marriage; but this time, you married blue. Guess what? Your “color of your us” is green, and it’s different. Sometimes that’s really good because, as you said, there’s things you didn’t care for in a previous “us”; but sometimes, there’s other things you did like. But then there’s the comparison thing: “Well, wait a minute, are you saying you still want orange?—because we’re green, and we’re not going to be orange—[Laughter]—and so does that mean you’re unhappy with our ‘us’?” That’s what I hear you saying.
Ryan: It is; yes.
Ryan: I think even—let’s say—me and my first wife were green. I was the blue one, and I kind of melded towards the green a little bit; so I’m not blue anymore.
Ron: Yes; yes.
Ryan: So whenever/when I lost her, and met Jess, I thought: “I can redo this. I don’t have to be dark blue” or “I don’t have to be green; I can be whatever it is I want to be.” I think my personality and some of those things that I held back in my first marriage came out in the open. Jess—I’d have to give credit to for a lot of that stuff—because I didn’t communicate it very well at all in round one, but I learned how to communicate with her because it wasn’t an option.
Ron: I think the takeaway is every “us” has a color to it/has a hue to it. There will be things that are similar to a previous relationship, things that will be different; but it’s the comparison and the contrast. That’s a space, where insecurity can thrive—is in the comparisons—so you need to guard against sharing too much information.
Don’t you think it’s also an internal thing?—like you also have to guard against comparing, in your own head, this relationship: that person versus the other person.
Jessica: We say, when we got married, it was the two became one, not the four became one. Ten years later, we don’t have these problems at all. Like I said earlier, I think it’s those first couple of years, where you’re not sure of your place in the relationship; you have all these insecurities. As time goes on, we have such a shared history now, and we’ve been through everything together at this point; and time does heal a lot of those insecurities and wounds, but you have to give it enough time.
Ron: Keep working at it.
Jessica: Keep working at it; because if you check out at year five or six, you have no idea how much better it could have really gotten at ten, eleven, twelve years.
Ron: Yes; most blended family couples quit before it ever has a chance to get good.
Ryan: I think we learned how to talk about that stuff too. When we did share things, we finally did decide that I had 14 years of experience with that person before I met her. She said, “I want to know more about you.” Well then, if you want to know more about me, you’re going to have to know about those last 14 years.
What we learned to do is—instead of saying: “When we were in this place,” or “…that place,” or “…doing this,”—it was just: “I,”—“When I was over there, doing this,”—then it felt better; like it wasn’t just everything I—my whole identity wasn’t with my first wife—I still had my own identity.
Ann: As I listen to that, I think, “That would be a tricky situation.”
Dave: Oh, boy.
Ann: I can feel myself feeling insecure, as the new spouse, wondering if I'm enough; or as good; or even: “Was his life richer with his first wife?” That can feel a little bit insecure.
Ron: I thought Ryan's observation was really good. You know, if I'm always casting my past in light of my relationship with my first wife, then it's sort of like my wife now just can't see me any other way. Am I an individual or was I just a husband to her? So to begin to tell stories, and be sensitive to your new wife/new spouse, and say it in a way that doesn't necessarily make the other person feel that insecurity.
Dave: Hey, Ron, how long does it typically take to get beyond the comparison to your former spouse to like burying that?—not in a bad way—but: “I have to move on.” Is that a year, or is that/could it be much longer?
Ron: You know, I don't know that there is ever a time, where you get past. I just think you carry the past with you in the present—you honor; the memories continue—there are moments, where maybe there's going to be a reflection that brings a smile to your face—you know, a good memory—that's not dishonoring to your current spouse. It's just, you know, it was a good moment in time.
Ann: And yet, Ron, I'm wondering: “If that was my dad—and now, he's not referring to my mom, who passed away any longer—I'm not sure, as a child, how that would feel.
Ron: Yes, exactly. And that's what we talked about in the rest of our conversation, and we're going to come back to that tomorrow.
Dave: Yes, so we have a second day that you don't want to miss; but if you want to jump in right now, and go to FamilyLifeToday.com, you'll find a link there to our podcast network; and you can hear the whole story. But you know what? Why don’t you just wait and jump in tomorrow with us? [Laughter]
Shelby: You've been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Ron Deal on FamilyLife Today. We've been hearing clips from Episode 67 of the FamilyLife Blended podcast. It's part of the Family Life Podcast Network, which you can learn more about at FamilyLifeToday.com.
If you’re in ministry, and wondering how you can help couples like Ryan and Jessica work through grief and a new family, we'd love it if you consider joining us at this year's Summit on Stepfamily Ministry. This year, the focus is on helping ministry leaders better understand loss and grief in blended families. The event is October 13 through 14 in Phoenix, Arizona. You can find out more at FamilyLifeToday.com.
Now, tomorrow, Dave and Ann Wilson will continue their conversation with Ryan and Jessica Ronne to talk about how to deal with children grieving. That's tomorrow.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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