How long should one wait after the death of your wife? Isn’t it appreciative and respectful to wait one year? I remember George Carlin said he waited a year, but my brother started dating right away and his children did not like that.
J. — Las Vegas
For the record, I just finished reading George Carlin’s autobiography, published after his death. The story of his marriage and his wife’s death is a great love story.
Your letter recalled to me a memory of Tom. Tom had been married for 26 years. His marriage was, well, tolerable. He thought of himself as a sensitive and doting husband. His wife, he said, was inconstant. Sometimes passionate and alive, often critical, unavailable and unyielding. But he stayed. Somehow, he stayed. They raised two daughters.
His wife contracted breast cancer, and died after a two-year struggle. He buried her. He mourned.
About six months later, he went dancing. See, he always had loved to dance. But his wife would not dance, had no interest. So, Tom went dancing. He met a woman. They danced and danced and danced.
This woman came to adore Tom. She cherished his sensitive and doting ways, which made Tom all the more sensitive and doting. Tom began to thrive in ways he never before had thrived. All of himself was welcomed and desired by the dancing woman. And who could ask for more than a mate who cherishes all of who you are?
His now-adult daughters were delighted for their father’s happiness. They encouraged him in the new relationship. But, Tom was reluctant and the daughters became frustrated. They nagged their father. That’s why Tom came to see me, to talk about how he was torn between his obvious love for the dancing woman, his anguish with his daughters’ impatience with him and wondering, wondering what was stopping him from moving forward.
Tom was not merely Italian. He was Old World Italian — a man who honored tradition, symbol and ceremony.
Together, we uncovered the unspoken, underlying dilemma. Tom had a need, a ceremonial need to honor his marriage and his deceased wife. Astonishing, really, when you consider that his view of the marriage and of his wife was less than flattering.
Tom finally said out loud, "She (his deceased wife) deserves a year of mourning."
What could I do but affirm this value in Tom? It mattered, even if people around him didn’t quite comprehend how and why it mattered; even if it frustrated the dancing woman and his daughters. I urged Tom to stand strong in this ceremony of time. I suggested that his commitment to this value was, in part, a way he was preparing himself for a joyous life with the dancing woman.
I urged him to share this value with the dancing woman and his daughters, and he did. And they paused. They respected his decision. And, standing proud in a white tuxedo, exactly one day after the anniversary of his wife’s death, he married the dancing woman, with his daughters standing happy at his side.
You ask, J., "Isn’t it appreciative and respectful to wait one year?"
Well, it was for Tom and George. But the important thing here is to remember that individual widows and widowers will each shape for themselves what constitutes respect and appreciation. Some never marry again. Some never date again. Some are content with commitment friendships — perhaps the erstwhile traveling companion. And some, who suffered in marriage, decide to respect and appreciate themselves by opening their heart again to the hope that a better union beckons.
You say your brother’s children did not like their father dating right away. This is a separate question. I would say the same thing, generally, to widows/widowers that I say to newly divorced people — that is, when children are involved. A child’s grief, whether that child is an adult or a minor child, often gets blurred into a kind of resentful possessiveness regarding the question of dating. And, yes, I would say, again generally, that a newly divorced or newly bereaved person is obliged to practice sensitivity and discretion regarding the politics of their children.
Not forever, but for a time. It bodes well to introduce the new mate on even footing with the children. If a newly divorced or newly widowed person decides to date right away, then discretion is the better part of valor.
The question, "How soon shall I date," is distinct from the question, "How soon shall I let my children be aware that I’m dating." And the second question is not about respect for the former union, but about respect for our children.
Originally published in View News on Feb. 2, 2010.