Author and father of seven Abel Keogh lost his wife to suicide when he was just 26 years old. Then it got worse. She was seven months pregnant with their baby daughter at the time, who after the suicide lived for a few days, then was not able to survive outside the womb.
Lost and going through a nightmare, Abel started an anonymous blog in 2001, where he wrote about his day to day pain and what he was going through. He started getting hundreds of questions from widows and widowers who needed advice on how to navigate their way through their own grief—and how to start dating. Abel ended up writing six books on the topic, including Dating a Widower: Starting a Relationship With A Man Who’s Starting Over, in response to all his readers. He’s now been married to his second wife Julianna for 15 years, and tells Personal Space how he overcame the worst time in his life and became an expert on the topic of widowers.
“Well I was widowed when I was 26 years old, my wife took her own life. I started a blog at the time about what I was going through and women who dated widowers started asking me questions. I had no clue, I was still navigating the dating waters,” Abel says. “I ended up remarrying 15 months after my late wife died, but the questions still kept coming in, so I wrote the books.”
Abel says that it’s usually widowers (men) who start dating before they are ready to.
“Widows (women) don’t usually start dating until they emotionally get better, while widowers think they can fix the hole in their heart by dating again,” he explains. “They think are ready, they are just looking to fill the hole in their heart. Most of the time he’s just lonely and he wants companionship not a relationship.”
When men are ready for commitment again, it’ll take some hurdles for the woman to get over in order to form a healthy relationship.
“I had my first serious relationship five or six months after my late wife died, and she was falling in love with me and every time I came home I felt like it wasn’t right. I thought oh, because of my emotional state, I’m still grieving, I can’t think through it straight. But a few months later I met Julianna who I’m married to 15 years, and we didn’t have these issues, everything just clicked,” Abel says.
He keeps some pictures of his late wife boxed up, and some pictures of his late baby daughter around the house, and says his late wife Krista crosses his mind “about once a week for two or three seconds” like "Krista would have liked that," and then it passes. But it was hard for Julianna in the beginning.
“We used to talk about it a lot more,” he says of Julianna. “There was a process to get through where part of my heart was reserved for someone else, but it’s been 15 years now. The more time goes on, I don’t dwell…If it’s not affecting current relationship it’s fine to talk about, if it comes between you, then I think there’s an issue there. Early on it was there…Julianna struggled with it when we were first dating, it was a often there’s a third person there. But we have kids of our own, and the passage of time and creating a new life has pushed me forward.”
“For widowers, it’s a daily thing—you get up and make a decision every day to move forward and start something new,” Abel says.
Seattle based grief therapist Dr. Pepper Schwartz agrees that men don’t always realize they aren’t ready, because they are still grieving but want to heal faster than they actually are. As for dating again, she says that the biggest question is if they are really ready to love again, “because you don’t want to be open to a relationship w someone who is so emotionally involved in their deceased spouse.”
“Then the new partner really doesn’t have a chance,” Dr. Schwartz says. “It’s hard to tell, the person may think they’re ready and they may be deluded because they are trying very hard not to sink back into grief. They are telling you what they think is true, but they may see you and realize all they can think about is their deceased partner.”
Dr. Schwartz says grief goes through many many stages, and you may think you are “into a new period” and find out you’re not.
“Opening up your heart may reignite it for your loved one,” she explains. “Things may hurt too much.”
But if you have been lucky enough to find love following the loss of a spouse, she advises that there are ways to make it easier for everyone involved—especially young children.
“Kids hold on- that’s her daddy and she’s lost her mommy or the opposite and the last thing she’s looking for is another mom or dad,” she says, adding the new partner can tell a child “I’m not looking to be your mom,” in a kind way.
“The kid can be angry at life that took her mom or dad away, angry at anyone who will disrupt what she still has with her mom or dad,” Dr. Schwartz says. “It can get very territorial.”
As for pictures around the house, a few is fine, but “if you built a shrine,” which Dr. Schwartz has seen, you’re going to have some trouble finding love again.
“It would be wrong to take away all pictures of someone who over time their memory warms you and makes you feel good,” she says.
“But there is that difference between a shrine and ‘this is someone I loved and they continue in my heart.’ But the message can’t be 'there is no room in my heart.'"
The new partner and widow or widower should talk about whether they want to talk about it, Dr. Schwartz says, as some people get comfort talking about a loved one and want to share that big emotional part of their life. But as time goes on, there should be room for new love, too.
“Time does give a somewhat protective covering over the emotions,” she says. “Some people are open to falling in love again and they are open to genuinely loving the person they lost and having new emotions for someone new at the same time.”
“The idea is to keep it respectful and understanding with all parties, let your kids know you’re seeing someone more steadilycat some point, but the parent also needs to establish adult boundaries.”
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