When a loving spouse or partner dies, whether a couple together for a lifetime or more recent, the thought of another, new loved one is the last thing on one’s mind and in one’s heart. Grieving takes time, and it should, to be fully embraced and honored in all ways.
But lives continue. Grief eventually lightens if never becoming entirely absent. Of course, each individual is different in how this process unfolds.
Some surviving spouses may live “happily ever after,” their soul indelibly infused with their departed mate. Such a survivor can be fortified and amply sustained by what she or he regards as truly their gift of a lifetime to have been so very fortunate. But not everyone is.
There are those spouses who experience this stage of their journey otherwise: steeped in utter loneliness. They advance steadily but irrevocably towards acknowledging their deep loss of companionship — their aloneness — apart from missing the physical and emotional reality of their deceased loved one. Loneliness may be a totally alien state, having been so entrenched in the years of daily togetherness. Many such people cannot face the challenge of thinking about a new companion, someday, let alone acting upon it.
Prior to a possible next round of companionship, often widows and widowers are encouraged by families to join a group or to spend more time with the one or ones they already belong to. Participating in an activity altogether new understandably takes a measure of initiative many folks cannot muster. If the surviving spouse is living alone, this issue is magnified, less so for those already living in proximity to others.
Forget about considering potential intimacy leading to sex. Just the idea of becoming close to a companion can loom like cheating on the lost spouse, ever present in the heart. In the case of widows, research has indicated that the younger the woman, the fewer obstacles here. Conversely, the older the woman, the greater the barrier. Women in their 30s and 40s, usually single moms, can more easily date. They have an extra reason to seek a man, as a helpmate, perhaps for financial support, and so on. Women in their 50s and early 60s are on the fence. A taste for independence can take hold. There can be new freedoms to follow various interests which never got fair play. But for widows in their 70s and definitely in their 80s, it is usually: No Way! Adult children, especially daughters, can suggest a male companion, but their mother’s reluctance is deeply grounded in our culture, let alone how this can weigh upon an individual. Is it taking multiple generations to achieve parity in the genders? That is a rhetorical question.
Jane Brody, the New York Times columnist, has taken up the issue of older women’s sexuality. She argues that, although not for everyone by any means, physical closeness, touching, simple intimacy is absolutely essential for many until their last breath. But usually this is roundly suppressed.
What about an older woman taking up with a younger man? Fox (sly, crafty), She-wolf, Cougar, these are the slang terms for this woman, implying her being a predator and disregarding the norm. Not the way the world works.
I know of a man whose father died when he was six. Nothing uncommon here, given men in the military plus the low but usual percentages of heart, cancer, and accident victims. Attractive and smart, his mother never re-married. He was a single child who bore the lion’s share of his mother’s emotional foundation, and she was content with that. There are innumerable such stories. Who is to say, although young, she too was guided by guilt or social opprobrium against replacing her spouse?
So, on the other hand, what about the gents? Do they face these same issues as does a widow? Generally speaking, they do not. Who makes a fuss over women in midlife who are dumped for a trophy wife? Many women considerably younger than a widower actively seek such a relationship. But men in our culture are intrinsically sanctioned in the business of having a woman at their side. My favorite tale along these lines is from a friend whose parents were in their late 70s-early 80s when his mother died. In a month his father had taken a new bride, not a trophy but well along. “You think I know how to run the washer and dryer?” he asserted to his adult children who’d been blind-sided by the speed of things. Another gentleman who became a widower after 60 years of happy marriage hooked up intimately within a few months. Even though the new woman was a widow herself and a family friend, still the adult children were upset. “Hey,” he said. “I’m 78. How much more time do I have?”
And so, the idea of “cheating” for a widow or widower deciding to pursue a serious connection is not a glib, passing observation. The very label of cheating dismisses the whole affair — relegating the deep-seated and basic human need for affection as “lesser than” the marriage or serious union that came before. Given the vastness of the current pandemic, sadly many women and men along with their families have been thrust into this fact of life: one in the couple dies first. There is a range of confronting this as varied as the different cast we assume as human beings.
Personally, I was delivered into single life after my loving husband of twenty years succumbed to two different cancers, each lethal. Re-grouping with another man has seemed unthinkable when he would be compared to my departed spouse. “He will stay in your heart forever, Richard. A source of joy as you recollect all that you shared” went the themes of condolence. For months, it was all pain, no joy. But like every other such soul on Earth in this situation, I am moving forward day by day. Life will brighten; I am blessed with family and very close friends. Still, in spite of the wonderful Zoom meetings and FaceTimes and lingering phone calls, it is not the same. The closeness I enjoyed with my spouse has only reaffirmed that I am “the marrying kind.” I am also fortunate for my “inner resources,” alive and well, that have been pursued my entire adulthood: writing, reading, painting, exercising, entertaining friends (even with Covid, one or two people at a time, outdoors!).
Earlier I referred to the broad range of individuals each having a special, personal take on handling solo life versus reconnection. And I have mine. Several times as his leave-taking became ever-more certain, Ray said to me: “Oh, Rich. You are so full of life. You have so many talents still to explore, and chapters ahead. You’re in better shape, damn you, than men half your age. When I’m gone, I just hope some guy is lucky enough to find you like I once was.”
We’ll see. Such love is a hard act to follow. But what a final act of love Ray did offer me, if I should ever follow down that path.