He’s grieving, but I’m in love

Dear Meredith,

I recently reconnected with a childhood friend who lost his wife. "Peter" and I were somewhat “adopted” by his aunt and uncle from the time we were 10. We are not related but we were both from proximity-close, troubled homes. His aunt and uncle provided both of us with a safe haven as stable parental figures most weekends and school breaks until college. Peter and I grew up, and of age, together. Something I am just now getting and appreciating. In college we stayed friends and fooled around a bit with dating into our early 20s, but when he started to express real feelings toward me that included the L-word, I was not ready and bolted. There was no breakup drama or relationship lost here -- we just grew apart rather normally and respectfully. We kept in touch loosely (email, FB friends), moved away from each other, and he got married. I never met his wife but was happy for him, and his family still fills a familial role in my life to this day.

It's now years later, we're in our 30s, and I receive a call that Peter has suddenly lost his wife. I was stunned. It hit me hard and brought on that strong need to see him to let him know that he wasn't alone. I booked a ticket to go the services and made arrangements to stay with his/my family. I was nervous to see him and nervous that my going might be perceived as selfish, weird, or inappropriate (as I had never met his wife). That is, until I saw him ... and then, there were no words, because we didn't need them. We were us again -- kids, not kids, loving, familiar. There.

It's been five months since then. Only five months, I know. We have talked every day, and have visited each other with more visits scheduled. I try to coach and be supportive as best I know how and he's surprisingly been able to support me through some things, even while going through his own personal hell. But every day I am quietly choking on how much I love him. I know I can't tell him this. It's too soon and he's far from being able to reciprocate, even if he felt remotely the same way. I'm hyper-aware of me not just falling for the injured doe and him not using me to replace the role of his wife. I struggle with being supportive but not invasive, being "sisterly" while quietly wanting him in the most opposite way than that, giving him space but not wanting to let him go, and all the while never forgetting that he is going through a major loss and life upheaval. I very seriously respect the responsibility I have of not taking advantage of his state or emotions. And in the meantime I just stay as busy and occupied as humanely possible (all things I’ve learned from this board!).

But, I do love him. And I want him to know this only without applying pressure or expectations. Is that even possible? Or am I already showing this enough by being here for him? I keep toeing the line at friendship because I don't want to confuse or ruin things, but he's not just a friend to me anymore. For those of you who have gone through major loss, when can I trust that he’s ready and won't confuse love with loss? Is there any reality for him at this point in grieving? Or should I just let him go again and see if we come back around? I read a quote this week that summed it up for me -- "Just because we can't be together doesn't mean I won’t love you." Because I do. I love him but I know we can't be together. I'm just hopeful to can end that last sentence with a "yet."

– Love It or Leave It, Boston

You say that he's been a friend to you, but it sounds like most of this relationship has been you supporting him. This whole experience has been so monumental -- especially considering your history. Are you sure you'd love him as much if he wasn't going through this significant loss? You're trying to avoid falling for the injured doe, but ... if he's not that, what is he? What have you fallen for?
I'm not saying you don't love him. I just want you to think about why you love him. You didn't see him for years, and now it's only been a few visits. What's really happening here? Also, even if it's possible that you guys have a future together, you also share a family. Do you want to risk what you have with them? You need to be honest with yourself about what you really want before you get lost in fantasies that have little to do with an average day-to-day relationship. There's a lot on the line.
Spend some time coming back down to Earth and thinking about the practicalities of a relationship with this person. If you begin to doubt your deep love, be a friend and set some boundaries so you don't become the central source of support in his life. If more time goes by and you're still committed to the idea of this, come clean and tell him that you're confused. Not that you're sure that you love him, but that you're confused. Because in my opinion, that's what you are. It might be love, but I'm not convinced you know what to do with it, and it's very possible he feels the same way. You don't want to burden him, but he deserves to make smart choices about who he uses for support and how. He should know who he's talking to.

But think, please. How do you really feel ... and why?

Readers? Is this about falling for the injured doe? What do you think he thinks of the relationship? Should the letter writer come clean now or later -- or ever? Discuss.

– Meredith