2009-09-24 / Sandy Days, Salty Nights

Death do us part; then on to Match.com

 
Vicki Kennedy makes for a striking widow. Now that she's said she won't fill her husband's senate seat, she has stepped firmly into the national conscience as a public figure of grief. The First Lady holds her hand at presidential conferences and liberals everywhere speak her name at prayer circles. At 55, she might some day remarry. But the odds are against it.

If things were different and Vicki passed before Teddy, chances are he'd be married this time next year. In fact, men are four times more likely to remarry after losing a spouse; 61 percent of men start dating within the first two years, compared to just 19 percent of women. It's ironic that the same men who hem and haw about being dragged into marriage — there's a reason women set ultimatums — are the ones who rush to find a ball and chain so soon after losing their spouse.

I've toured the circuit of grief groups; the women there often titter about the widowers who come to troll for dates. "They can't do a load of laundry," the women say, throwing their hands up in exasperation. "They don't know how to cook for themselves." With older widowers especially, men who served as breadwinners while their wives tended the home front, the transition to forced bachelorhood can be rocky. They're suddenly left wondering who will fold their socks or dust the TV stand.

But, really, it's more than the housework. My feeling is that there's a companionship that develops in marriages, a profound understanding that's hard to duplicate. We learn the most intimate details about someone over the course of a marriage: how they sleep with their mouth open or litter the sink with hairs after they shave. It's these same details that grate on us over time, that drive couples to alcohol, recreational drugs and — worse — marriage counseling. But what we gain in this exchange, this soul-level knowledge of another human being, is a partner who knows us just as intimately.

Abel Keogh, who lost his wife when he was 26 years old, echoes this feeling.

"In my case, I really missed being married," he says. "You can share your problems, your joys. You take pleasure in their life and they take pleasure in yours." Mr. Keogh has gone on to write a book on grieving for men, "Room for Two," and runs the online Facebook group, "Dating a Widower." He tells men who have lost a spouse and are considering dating again to take a step back and evaluate the situation. "Make sure it's for the right reasons," he says, "and not just because you're lonely."

Which is good advice for all of us. So often we rush into relationships wanting to be known and we are quick to dismiss our partners when they fail to comprehend us fully. Instead of dashing headlong into a break-up at the first sign of discord, we would be wise to stick with some relationships for the long haul. To know someone fully — and to be known by them — takes time. For most of us, that means a lifetime.

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