Every time I read an obituary of someone who has died of covid-19, I wonder if that death has left behind a widow. That is, I suppose, an inevitable consequence of spending more than two years interviewing widows about life beyond bereavement.
When a Detroit journalist friend, Marti Benedetti, and I embarked on a project to write a book about widowhood romances, we figured we knew something about the subject. After all, Marti was a widow and I was dating a widower. Yet we met surprises at every turn.
We hadn’t realized how deeply widowhood can compromise a woman’s health or finances. We never thought how strongly opposed in-laws, and even neighbors, might be to a widow dating again. We were unaware of the wide list of stereotypes applied to widows, from the notion they are tragically fragile to the myth that they are valiant and heroic.
We were also unprepared for the remarkably creative, and sometimes nontraditional, ways widows are pulling themselves out of gutting loss to rebuild lives that are strong and whole again. More than any generation before, they are crafting new relationships on their own terms by rewriting the rules of romance.
Women who lost their partners talked to us of their widowhood “journey,” but journey seems a misnomer for one of life’s most jolting experiences. They described waking up day after day with a sense that old friends were drifting away. People didn’t know what to say to them. They were astonished to find themselves relegated to the sidelines at social events.
“At one point, one of my best friends got married, and she seated me at a table that was separate from my own parents. My parents were a couple but I had to go to the singles table,” one widow said.
“Other people just don’t get us,” another widow explained. “They don’t know what to do with us.”
Not all widows look for new relationships, but many do, even as they tote chest-tearing grief. For them, love is just too joyous of a human experience to give up.
“I feel horrible that my husband died. I feel horrible that my children lost their dad,” a young widow said. “But there is a lot of life still to live. My life has to move on.”
In writing “Finding Love After Loss: A Relationship Roadmap for Widows,” we spoke with widows who met widowers — often the most coveted pairing among people who have lost partners, according to those we interviewed — and launched happy relationships. We talked to women who found new partners in the library, in the grocery store, at church. We interviewed many widows who jumped onto dating apps. They were learning how to navigate rejection and write online profiles that embodied the new person they had become after heartbreak.
Some didn’t especially care for online dating, and waxed nostalgic about when they had met people at concerts and parties and bars and through friends. However, they conceded that Internet dating was efficient, especially during a pandemic that precluded in-person meetups.
And then there was the widow who paid five figures to a professional matchmaking service. She lived in a rural town “where everyone is married” and felt her chances of finding someone on her own were slim.
“At my age and station in life … I wanted to be in the position of making a selection,” she said. “The idea of being in a database waiting for men to choose me was not at all appealing.” She hadn’t met a new match yet, but she’d been on enough dates to feel confident the service was taking her in the right direction.
We also spoke with young widows juggling grieving children, financial turmoil and career interruption. Their road is an especially rocky one. Often they were the only widow in their social circle, and their friends, new to death, were careless and clumsy in handling that. Yet these women, too, held fast to the idea they might find love again.
This new generation of widows may desire romance, but they aren’t embracing love at any price. Widowhood has made them careful and self-protective.
For some, it means prenups. For others, it’s serial dating, marriage with separate homes or living together without marriage. One widow we spoke with made her new romantic partner prove he had nursing home insurance. She had been the caregiver for her husband as he died of a long illness, and she had no intention of repeating that experience. Another eschewed marriage to live with her new life partner, but only certain days of the week. We spoke with a woman in her 70s who had entered a polyamorous relationship.
Some of the widows were living independently for the first time in decades, maybe even the first time in their lives. At first, the autonomy might have saddened and scared them because it came hand-in-hand with wrenching loneliness. After a while, though, they found the freedom thrilling.
“I have changed. I’ve gone deeper into who I am. I like myself better now than ever,” said a widow who dated for a stretch and thought about remarriage before deciding that she preferred solo living.
Why does any of this matter? Because widows are a formidable demographic with growing influence. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than a million women were widowed in 2019 alone. Just over 450,000 men also lost a life partner during the same period, pushing the number of widows and widowers in the United States to over 14 million. Pandemic deaths have accelerated those figures in the past two years.
According to the 2020 Census, there were more than 11 million widowed women in the United States.
Many of these widows are not willing to retreat into solitude or settle for platonic friendships. They are in better health and living longer than the generations that preceded them. They may be financially independent. They want to be happy. They want companionship. They want good sex.
Even the oldest women among them accept the idea that they may have the bandwidth for another romance.
Widows are resilient, and our research proves it. These women will carry grief forever, but gradually its hard edges soften, and they move forward to shape their lives in interesting ways.
As one widow put it: “It’s good to examine what you want the rest of your life to look like and then be open to possibilities.”
Mary A. Dempsey, a D.C.-based freelance writer and editor, is the co-author of “Finding Love After Loss: A Relationship Roadmap for Widows,” published in October by Rowman & Littlefield.