Widows: Getting Your Kids On Board With The Dating Game

Dating after losing a spouse can come with a world of complications. And if you're a parent, it can be especially hard to explain new relationships to children. Two moms who lost their husbands share how they ventured back into dating and how their children reacted.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. Today, though, we decided to talk to mothers who have reentered the dating world after losing a spouse.

That's easy to imagine, how dating again would bring up complicated feelings, not just for the widow, but also for the children who may still be grieving the loss of a parent. Leslie Brody wrote about that experience recently for The New York Times Motherlode blog, and she's with us now. She's also author of the book "The Last Kiss," a mom of two and a stepmom of three. Leslie Brody, thank you so much for joining us.

LESLIE BRODY: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And I'm sorry for your loss.

BRODY: Oh, thank you, as well.

MARTIN: Also with us is Elizabeth Berrien. Her husband passed away in 2009. She's author of the new book "Creative Grieving: A Hip Chick's Path from Loss to Hope." She's also a mom of one and a stepmom of three. Elizabeth, thank you so much for joining us, and I'm also sorry for your loss.

ELIZABETH BERRIEN: Thank you, it's nice to be here.

MARTIN: And I wanted to mention that, even though the stories that you tell are sad, the way you write about them is not. I mean, both of you have a lot of sense of spirit and hope, but I do want to kind of flag that. You wrote about this, after date - you wrote about dating after you lost your husband to cancer in 2008.

You wrote, if my curious teenagers asked who was taking me to dinner, I concocted coy nicknames, like "Crunchy Dad" or "Union Guy." While I didn't want to hide that I was trying to be open to a new relationship, I didn't what every awkward step to be visible either. And you say the whole idea of dating felt disloyal and embarrassing. Could you talk about that?

MARTIN: OK, Leslie, can we hear you? Leslie, are you here? Elizabeth, let's go to you, because we're having some technical difficulties, which have plagued us today.

BERRIEN: OK.

MARTIN: So Elizabeth, what about you? You talked about that, too, how the idea of dating again after the loss kind of feels - it's awkward, it's embarrassing. Why?

BERRIEN: ...Awkward, and, you know, being a young widow especially, it's a very different experience going back into the dating world after you've thought you've already found the person that you're going to be spending the rest of your life with. And so you're sort of questioning, how am I going to open up to somebody new and how are they going to understand what I've gone through?

And it can be quite terrifying because you don't know how, you know, other people that you're going to be dating are going to accept what you've experienced, and what they might say that's insensitive. So it's really putting yourself out there. And, you know, it's also very angering because you're thinking, why am I back out here in this dating pool again, you know, I thought I didn't have to go through this anymore.

MARTIN: So, Elizabeth, though, can I ask you, though, is it your feelings or is it the feelings that other people have that is the main issue here? 'Cause I know you mentioned that you remarried after - a year after losing your husband and that people were - some people were very judgmental about that. Some family members were critical of you for that. So is the main thing that causes awkwardness, is it your feelings or is it really other people's feelings? Or you're thinking about what other people are going to say?

BERRIEN: Well, I really think it's both. I think that, you know, you're judging yourself a lot because you want to honor the memory of your late husband and you don't want to look like, you know - because you don't ever get over a loss, you know, you always carry that with you. And other people, you know, it's easy for them to say things because they haven't been through it. And so you are sensitive to people saying, oh my goodness, she's moving on too soon or she hasn't grieved her husband long enough, maybe she didn't love him that much.

You know, there's a lot of hurtful things that can interfere with your moving forward. So, you know, I had to put a lot of that in the background to listen to my own heart and what I was ready for. And, you know, it can be a challenge but I think when it comes down to it, it's your path and it's your life. And I got lucky because I think a lot of my family and friends were very supportive of me doing what I needed to do.

MARTIN: Leslie, your children are now teenagers. Were they teenagers when you lost your husband, and do you think that's a complicating factor? They're just starting to date.

BRODY: Right. Well, they were 12 and 15, and it is a little bit complicating. But, in a way, I thought my daughter would see you can go out on a date and if it doesn't work out, big deal, you move on. So there were upsides, as well. And, in fact, I found that sometimes my - there was one time I introduced my children to a man I thought would be a long-term situation and it - you know, they had a much keener antenna than I did, that he just wasn't that into me.

So they actually were helpful in opening my eyes. So it is complicated but, luckily, I had very generous, resilient children who really just wanted me to be happy. And so they sometimes seemed amused by the dating situation and sometimes were really concerned and helpful.

MARTIN: Why the nicknames, Leslie? The "Crunchy Dad" or "Union Guy," why the nicknames?

BRODY: Well, that was initially because I just didn't want them to turn around and Google them as soon as I mentioned the real name. I thought that would be a little too much information too soon.

And I thought, you know, if something seemed like it could be a long-term involvement, then I would, of course, happily introduce them. But I didn't want them to see every awkward step along the way, and it was also a way to keep these men at a certain emotional distance. If I was a bit flip about it, it kept it more lighthearted.

MARTIN: What were you afraid would happen if they Googled them?

BRODY: Well, they might - one - a couple of them, I have to say, were sort of well-known guys and I didn't really want them to go into school and say, hey, did you know my mom went on a date with so-and-so? It just seemed like it would be unfair to the man and just too gossipy.

MARTIN: Did either of you have any role models for this? I mean, as you both pointed out, you don't get married with the idea that you're going to lose the person who you've loved and pledged to love. I mean, that's generally not the way people kind of go about things. So did you have any guides, any role models to help you through this? Elizabeth, I'll ask you first.

BERRIEN: You know, not really. I joined a support group early on, and a lot of the other women were sort of dealing with the same feelings about moving forward and meeting new men. And, you know, we sort of just rooted for each other to move forward in that way. And, you know, that was a nonjudgmental group that I knew I could say, oh my gosh, I had this awful date the other night, listen to this.

And, you know, I knew that they would understand and not be harsh and say ridiculous things. So, you know, I really had to just sort of take it one step at a time. I didn't have anybody to say, you know, this is how you handle this or these kinds of feelings. I just had to listen to myself a lot of the time.

MARTIN: Leslie, what about you?

BRODY: Not at all. But it was an interesting time to be dating in a way, unexpectedly, because last time I had done it was really in my twenties. And now, here I was, 50, when I started again, and I had no biological clock, I had a career that supported me. I felt no rush or any pressure to meet a man so that I could have children. It was liberating in a way, and I enjoyed that part of it.

MARTIN: Many people in this country are single again because of divorce, and I'm not into competitive suffering. Like, I'm not into, like, my situation is worse than your situation. But I did wonder if friends or associates or relatives whom you've had, who've been single again for other reasons, did that offer any guidance or was it just - did you just feel too different? I don't know who wants...

BRODY: Well...

MARTIN: ...To answer that. Maybe, Leslie? Or I'm not sure. Leslie?

BRODY: I think there's a lot of support that you get when you're a widow. Everyone wants to help you and a lot of friends wanted to fix me up with somebody. I think sometimes when - I had been divorced in the past, as well, and at that - so my husband who died was my second husband. When I was divorced, people are a little more leery of helping you 'cause they don't want to intrude or they don't want to take sides.

So there was a lot more warmth and support from my friends in terms of fixing me up. I think it's a little difficult for the man because he knows he has a very tough act to follow and, you know, you left someone - you lost someone you love very much. It's not like you left in bitterness. So I think it's hard on the man.

MARTIN: Well, and again, you know, we're reminded that we've been in a country that's experienced two wars in the last - over the last decade. So there are a lot of young women who've lost - and, you know, men, too - who've lost spouses who are still young and in the - kind of the prime of their lives - prime dating years and forming new family years. Do you have any advice for other people like you who have lost a loved one and would like to perhaps meet someone new? Elizabeth, do you want to start?

BERRIEN: Sure. I just - I really believe it's important to follow your own pace because, I mean, with grief, in general, you really do have to move at a pace that's comfortable for you. And, you know, just the gifts that you discover through your own grieving process are so important, before you're ready to move on and meet somebody.

But, you know, whether you decide to date months afterwards or years afterwards, you know, it really should be your decision. And, you know, no one else can understand how it feels unless they've been through it. So I really think it's important to be kind to yourself and nurture yourself. And, you know, just try to do what feels right to you because that's really ultimately what's most important. It's your life.

MARTIN: Leslie, what about you?

BRODY: Well, I would agree with what Elizabeth says. Absolutely. I would just have to add, I was totally opposed to the whole online dating thing at first because it felt sort of desperate and dangerous to me. But I would encourage folks to try it if they feel like it, because, to my surprise, it was very efficient and even sort of entertaining to sort of see who's out there, and there's no commitment necessary. And, you know, I met a very nice man through that route and maybe other people can as well.

MARTIN: What about kids who are mad, though? Did either of you have a kid who was just mad, who was just, like - who was just kind of what you might imagine, which is to say that you're being disloyal, that you should be - you know, that I'm not ready to let dad go? Did either of you have that experience and how did you handle it?

BRODY: I didn't have that. I would say that I took a very long time to start to date again. I didn't even - for about two years, I was just nursing my wounds. My husband was sick for two and a half years with pancreatic cancer before he died, and so when we lost him, I was totally exhausted. So by the fact that I took so much time to get back in the game, I think my kids were ready for me to have some fun and see me having some fun.

I also think Jonathan Alter, a columnist, once wrote about this great phrase, "the glorious narcissism of adolescence." And I think, to some extent, teenagers are so into their own world and their own friends and their school that they are not paying quite as much attention every minute as we might think they are to what we're doing.

MARTIN: They're not thinking about you. As long as you don't become a Montel Williams episode and start wearing lace, you know, cut-offs and things of that sort.

BRODY: Exactly.

MARTIN: Which no one wants.

BRODY: Right.

MARTIN: Elizabeth, final thought from you?

BERRIEN: I just really want women to know that, you know, they should reach out to support around them that's going to be nonjudgmental. You know, I run a group called Soul Widows and I've made the most amazing friendships with these women that can understand what you're saying 'cause they're on the level that you are and what you've gone through.

And just to be able to open up and have these kinds of discussions about dating again or how to, you know, talk about these things with your children, I think that those are the women that you're really going to find the help in moving forward in a positive way.

MARTIN: Elizabeth Berrien is the author of the new book "Creative Grieving: A Hip Chick's Path from Loss to Hope." She's a mom of one and a stepmom of three. She joined us from member station WFAE in Charlotte, North Caroline. Leslie Brody is author of the book "The Last Kiss," a mom of two and a stepmom of three. She was with us from Latham, New York. Thank you both so much for speaking to us and good luck to you both. And my very best wishes to you and your families.

BERRIEN: Thank you so much.

BRODY: Thank you so much.

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