In the Company of Widowers: How They Grieve & Move On
One day, out of the blue, Barbara received an email from a long-time friend, Dennis Lockhart, 74, the 14th president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Now retired, Lockhart, had lost two wives to different, protracted illnesses. He wrote Barbara, “Since it’s most natural for women to survive a husband, I was thinking that there are a lot of guys out there who haven’t thought about everything they have to take care of when a wife or partner pre-deceases them.”
The email started us thinking about how differently men and women seem to deal with spousal loss. In our last book, Suddenly Single after 50, Margaret addressed what it was like to lose her spouse of 42 years to death—how she grieved, dated, dealt with intimacy, handled finances, legal, social and emotional issues while recrafting her life.
Barbara, who lost her husband to divorce after 31 years of marriage and wrote also about it in the same book, dated two widowers she met online before she met her beau. After she and her husband separated, the first person she emailed was a widower, who seemed very available and was extremely funny. How nice not to deal with an angry ex-wife, she thought. She also dated another widower, who coincidentally was also funny, and she initially thought he was available. In each case, she felt they would be safe bets, free, needing nurturing and a woman in their lives. Neither of the relationships worked out. Both subsequently married and one divorced.
So, as two women writers who address a predominantly female audience (with a few male fans), we decided to turn the tables to examine how three widowers—Lockhart; Abel Keogh of Utah, age 46, who lost his first wife when he was 26 and became an author and expert on widower relationships, and Norman Selner, 82, a St. Louis retired attorney--handled loss and moved on.
Following are issues we addressed with them: How do widowers grieve? When and how do they date? Do they move forward more quickly than a widow? How do they fill the void after loss? Change their lifestyle? Do most men get help i.e., therapy, grief support group? If they do date after loss, how do they handle their kids’ reactions?
Here are the edited excerpts from those conversations:
How long were you married to your late wife and how soon after she died did you start dating?
Keogh: I was married at 23 and then three years later my wife died. I was 26 years old. I started dating almost immediately online. I remarried 15 months later, someone I met at my church, and we are still married. We have seven children.
Lockhart: My first wife died of an illness in 2000 after 26 years of marriage. My second wife passed away in November 2020.
Selner: My wife of 57 years died almost three years ago, July 2018. I have no plans to remarry.
Is the mourning process different for men versus women? Do men do so in more private ways? Are they lonelier in their grief?
Keogh: Men will not cry in public and have less of a tendency then women to break down and cry in general. Typically, if grieving, they’ll talk about their late wife, generally leave pictures out and still wear their wedding rings. If they’re not ready to move on and they begin to date, the date might feel like she’s competing with a ghost; there’s a third person in the relationship.
Lockhart: My grieving has been alone in private for the most part.
Selner: I dealt with my grief by talking about it with my daughters and a few other close friends or relatives, frequently telling them how I felt. There was a lot of crying privately and allowing myself to feel the love that was much deeper than I realized before I lost her, and the guilt that I didn’t tell her how deep it was as often as I should have. I am still dealing with it.
How do widowers fill the void from spousal loss?
Keogh: I did a lot of things with my guy friends, which was therapeutic. I also started blogging anonymously at first and then wrote my first book, Room for Two. It was published in 2007—six years after my late wife died.
Lockhart: I have filled the void partially with all the tasks and busy work that follow the death of a spouse. I stay busy with boards, both non-profit and for-profit, and teach a course at Ga Tech.
Selner: I have never filled the void. But I tried to accept it and adjust to it.
What is the worst part about being a recent widower?
Lockhart: The countless things that must be completed before I own my life again. I was thinking in very practical terms about all the things a surviving spouse must deal with. By way of example--disposing of clothes and personal effects, dealing with consignment shops, going through and sorting papers, mastering a vocabulary for objects owned by a female, notifications and cancellations of credit cards/email accounts/insurance policies/changes of car titles, distributing memento objects to children and grandchildren, getting appraisals, etc. etc. In my experience (which has some unique aspects), there are probably 50 matters that I have to figure out or navigate.
Selner: The worst part is losing the one you love. Everything else is incidental.
How have you changed, what have you learned or what do you plan to do that you’ve never done before?
Keogh: I was in marketing and after my wife died, I started writing about my loss. This has become my new career—coach and widower relationship expert and author.
Lockhart: I am considering, but haven't yet acted on, trying to learn to play the piano.
Selner: As for being a widower, I have learned a lot and made big changes. I can do laundry, I can clean house, and I have become a fair to middling’ cook. I even bought an expensive bottle of Scotch and one of Tequila Añejo. That is something that couldn’t happen in my late wife’s house; she had a genuine fear that I would become a lush. Before Covid-19, I prepared a prime steak dinner with all the trimmings for my poker club and served it on fine china with wine in crystal goblets and Prosecco in flutes, hors d’oeuvres, French pastries and coffee for dessert, the whole bit. Later Covid-19 hit and put an end to that libertine life.
Are men better at moving forward? Do they start to date much faster than women? What about guilt?
Keogh: I don’t know if men are better at moving forward but we deal with it differently. Women tend to get their lives in order a bit more, to wait longer and to be more emotionally together when they start dating again. Men need relationships and without someone to talk to or someone to be there for them, their lives tend to be empty. Men feel their life is broken, has lost purpose and they date very quickly. If recently widowed and still grieving, dating won’t work out. Initially, widowers hop from one relationship to another. Many of the clients I deal with, especially first relationship widowers who had and never dated, I now know to suggest that the guy take down pictures or remove the wedding ring. And OMG if they’re spending time with a woman too soon, the guilt creeps up and it comes out in the relationship fairly quickly.
Lockhart: As for moving forward, there is an adjustment to being alone in the house/apartment where, even when my late wife was paralyzed and mute, there was a "family unit" of her and a caregiver.
Selner: Moving forward? I have changed my thinking. I have learned to carpe diem because we don’t know how many diems we have left. I have learned to be freer with my money, not irresponsibly so. I don’t have to worry about raising my kids or supporting my wife, so I might as well use some of it to enjoy the time that I have left. I would spend it on good food, fine Scotch and Tequila, a spiffy little red car to replace my 16-year- old sedan, and a weekend trip with my new friend to a luxury hideaway overlooking the Mississippi River. We booked the whole house that used to be the manse of a steamboat captain. (Note: The trip didn’t work out.) These are a few of my favorite things.
How do you cope with the loneliness?
Lockhart: I am not terribly lonely, but a solitary existence in the Covid-19 circumstances is unnatural. In some ways, it’s easier for me day to day in the sense that I no longer feel an obligation to be present for her, to get home from a meeting or trip asap.
Selner: I do not have much loneliness. I talk to my daughters daily. Strangely the virus has probably worked to combat loneliness. It has made communications easier. I have many friends on Facebook, and we kibbitz every day. I have four living cousins in the first degree, and we have instituted monthly Zoom meetings. One of them lives in California, one in Chicago, one in Carbondale, IL, and one here. Before Covid-19 we rarely communicated or saw each other.
Is the way men mourn/grieve and how long different because of the length of their union; also, if they have children and grandchildren?
Keogh: I didn’t have any living children when my first wife died. But children can be an influence. How long someone was married does not play a role. If the kids are still at home, the tendency is to overindulge and spoil the kids because they lost their mom.
Selner, Regardless of how long you were married and the circumstances, once there is loss, we all learn to adjust and live on.
What about pushback from kids if their father starts to date? How is the best way to handle?
Keogh: My advice is to be transparent, not go into details. However, if dating again, let the children know and do not ask for their permission. Have a conversation and say, “I’m dating again and still love your mom but need to do this for it makes me happy.” When Dad keeps this a secret and it’s found out, all hell breaks loose. Many Dads tend to hide this. Typically, having the kids accept this can take a long time. They too are grieving but spousal loss is different from the process of losing a parent. If they see that Dad is happy again, laughing and having a good time –not making out with this woman in front of them obviously—most kids can accept the change.
Selner: As I said earlier, I have my children and grandchildren friends and family to talk about my late wife. My kids are all adults and have their own lives. I am seeing someone, and my kids are supportive of this.
During the grieving process are men more inundated with help from women—if heterosexual—or men—if gay--with casseroles, phone calls and emails, being invited to dinner and so on?
Keogh: One thing you see with widowers is usually in their first relationship after loss, they get together with someone they know. They don’t necessarily have a romantic history with that person, but it can be a co-worker, the widow of a good friend, someone who lives two doors away. It happens a lot. Before I met and married my current wife, I got into a relationship with a woman I knew from before my wife died. We had a long- distance relationship, talked and dated four months. It ended disastrously, totally my fault.
Lockhart: Because of Covid-19, no doubt, women did not literally come knocking at my door with casseroles, but subtle overtures have been received.
Selner: No women came knocking, but I have some wonderful neighbors across the hall who fed me until I put on about five pounds and had to ask them tenderly to please stop. My daughter’s boyfriend’s family started including me in some of their holiday gatherings. They were wonderful.
It seems as if widowers have their pick in dating and remarriage. Numbers are in their favor.
Keogh: In my case, it was 2001 when my wife died. Internet dating was new. I worked in marketing and did copywriting and email marketing. I was blogging anonymously being a young widower and trying to date and figure out my new life. My blog got popular, and people found it and shared. At some point a woman sent me an email with questions. I answered her questions and other questions started trickling in. Eventually, the blog got popular. I then wrote my first book, a memoir about losing a wife, during the first year of life afterward and falling in love, 15 months after my wife died. My current wife and I just celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary. She had not been married before.
Did you try internet dating or ask friends to fix you up?
Keogh: It was new, and I felt shameful that I couldn’t meet a woman face to face. However, if it were not for online dating, I might not have dated at all. I never told anybody about this. For me, it was a way to process that I was a widower; it was safe and external.
Abel, how did you meet your second, current wife?
Keogh: We attended the same church. I didn’t know her but saw her one day and thought that she was gorgeous. Many people felt I was moving too fast, and to be honest if someone had asked me why I was moving so quickly, I would have said, “I have no idea.”
On what basis would you date or marry again?
Lockhart: It will be a high bar. The person's health situation will matter. I've lost two wives to disease. I don't want to go through the ordeal again. At the moment, I feel fine with friends, kids, and grandchildren.
Selner: I will never marry again. For 57 years I had a love who, to me, was the most beautiful, most loving, most gentle, most humble, kindest woman I ever met. That only happens once in a lifetime, and I was lucky that it happened the first time around. I do, however, have an affectionate female friend. I met her in the fall of 2019. I told her at the outset that the relationship would just be friends having fun and that is what it is. And I explained why it has to be that way, and she is fine with it.
Do widowers have less guilt than a widow if moving on to a new relationship? Is it different for a widower than a widow to start over?
Keogh: Know that in a first relationship for widowers they might feel guilty to be happy and dating again. Women have guilt, too, but work through it and get themselves together. As I said earlier, widowers start a relationship quickly and maybe four weeks later the guilt trip surfaces because the widower is still in love with his late wife. It’s too soon.
How about getting some therapy or joining a support group? Do widowers participate in either or both?
Keogh: Therapy tends to be female centric and the talk is about stuff men don’t like to talk about. I tell widowers that the best therapy is find male friends and go to the gym and exercise, do shared activities with friends or brothers or family members. It’s not that we don’t want to talk about our loss, but we bond better if we do activities with our male buddies. Two months after my wife died, a guy friend of mine in Arizona, invited me down to hang out for a few days. We spent time hiking in the desert and watched action movies--typical guy stuff. I tell friends that this trip saved me. It was in lieu of any therapy session.
Grief groups can be beneficial, but once again they are female centric. They form a circle and talk about their issues and that did not appeal to me. My late wife killed herself. To some degree, most widowers whose late wife had a protracted illness, tend to date faster and move on faster. If a spouse/partner is lost to suicide, a widower tends to have more guilt although, regardless of how the person died, the grieving process is the same.
How do men mark a late wife’s memory and is it different than what women might do or prescribed by your religion? Jewish families put up a headstone before the first anniversary, which offers some closure.
Keogh: On the first anniversary of my late wife’s death, I went to the cemetery. Since then, I think of her in my heart and moved on. Women tend to honor their late spouses longer. Men tend to compartmentalize.
Abel, what are some tips if you want to date a widower. We’ve heard that you have to “catch” them early since they pair up but not too early when they are still grieving?
Keogh: Avoid being the first one he dates. Note how he is treating you as you date. Is it like a secret? Is he keeping the photos up and why they are still there or is he taking down the photos and introducing you to his friends and family? Has he said that he loves you? Is he doing things so you feel like number one? If he’s ready, you won’t feel like you’re opening your heart in competition with a ghost.
Widowers who didn’t have a happy marriage. Are they different?
Keogh: Even if someone’s marriage was the worst in the world, it will eventually come out after someone dies that the person was a saint.
Abel, do you have any other advice for women who want to date a widower?
Keogh: The biggest mistake women make is to go too fast and believe what the widower says rather than watching his actions. If you decide to date either a widower or a divorcee, what anyone should be looking for is someone who seems happy on their own, appears to be healthy mentally and physically and wants another person to share life and all its ups and downs.
Barbara learned how different dating a widower versus a divorced man can be during her dating marathon when she was separated and divorced. With the first man she met online, they corresponded for months, and it was great fun since he had a fabulous sense of humor. Once they finally met, the chemistry was almost nonexistent. Furthermore, he wasn’t really available emotionally. He was still enmeshed with his late wife. He drove Barbara by the cemetery where she was buried and talked about her constantly. “I knew he wasn’t ready yet for a relationship or certainly not with me,” she recalls. “He also seemed to consider his wife a saint, and I couldn’t compete with a ghost.”
Somewhat of the same scenario was true with the second widower, though he was more eager to couple up and conducted what she termed a baking contest by having his “cupcakes” compete against one another. She knew several other women’s names, where they were from, their professions and other details she had no interest in learning. He also made his late wife out to be a saint initially, though later told her their union wasn’t perfect.
After Barbara stopped dating him, he married one of the cupcakes, but they later divorced—and fairly quickly. The man Barbara was fixed up with was divorced, though his former wife had died before they met. Barbara found that it’s tough to navigate most widowers’ typical timetables. “You need to find one early before they become romantically involved but not too early since they still may be grieving,” she says. “Maybe, they should wear a sign, ‘I’m ready, really!’” she says.
Abel Keogh is a relationship coach and the expert on widower relationships. A remarried widower, Abel has successfully helped thousands of women know if the widowers they’re dating are ready for a serious relationship. He also helps widowers understand what it takes to overcome grief and open their heart to another woman. Abel is also an avid runner and writer.