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Opinion: Bob Saget’s widow isn’t alone in grappling with what happens when dating and grieving collide

Opinion by Sarah Gundle

(CNN) — A patient in a trauma group I run couldn’t stop crying. The group all knew that she had lost her wife a few years back and the anniversary was coming up. Handing her tissues, another group member hesitantly asked if the anniversary was weighing on her.

“No,” she sobbed. “It’s not that.” She covered her eyes and continued to weep. “I met someone.” She wailed: “I really like him!”

The group looked at one another quizzically. “And this is a bad thing?” someone said.

“I’m really happy,” she responded, turning to me. “What is going on?”

My patient was just wading back into the dating pool; meeting someone she liked was indeed a good thing. But it was also complicated. Grief is unpredictable like that; it can lie in wait, even on the sunniest of days.

For my patient, opening her heart to someone else made the loss of her wife more concrete, as if somehow pulling the cord on a curtain that separated past from future. To function in her day-to-day life with children and career, she had worked hard to build a wall around her grief. Liking someone new had somehow dismantled that wall.

Too often, I have found in my experience as a therapist, our culture counsels us to put away our grief.  It’s in the very language we use in the aftermath of loss. How do I “move on,” “put it behind me,” “get past this?” We talk about “the departed,” those we have “lost.” My patients often believe that before happiness or love, they must first safely seal off their grief.

But like a zombie in a horror movie, grief has a way of refusing to be extinguished. In her book “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Joan Didion wrote that, “Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.”

Bob Saget’s widow, food blogger Kelly Rizzo, recently spoke out about her grief process, and the survivor guilt she felt after he died in 2022, at 65, from head trauma. “I’m still just coming from a place of gratitude. Just being so grateful for the time I had with Bob,” she said. But, she confessed: ”You feel guilty if you have happy moments or if you’re not feeling sad all the time.

Rizzo’s comments reinforce my belief that many of us are thinking about grief in the wrong way. Perhaps instead of imagining grief as a beast that must be slain or something we must leave behind, we should think about how to make it part of us as we move forward.

Jocelyn Charnas, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York City, told me that “There’s no right way to handle dating after a loss. But it’s critical to remember that grief lasts forever. It evolves and changes over time, we hope it becomes something we can live with. But it doesn’t leave. And when a widow begins to date, they are adding to their story, not starting over.”

Rizzo’s guilt is easy to understand, but if she were my patient, I would urge her to ask herself whether her guilt is not only making her miserable but, in an odd way, her late husband too. If we can think of those we have left behind as still with us, incorporated into us in a physical way — because they are — then perhaps we can see excessive grief as an insult, rather than a tribute.

In 2015 Sheryl Sandberg lost her husband, Dave Goldberg, after a tragic accident. In her book, “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy,” she wrote about how complicated dating becomes after losing a significant other, especially for women. “We judge women much more harshly for dating than men, and that’s why men date sooner and more often,” she wrote.

Dr. Charnas agrees. “There’s so much judgment for widows. If they don’t move on too quickly it’s an issue, and if they do, it’s a problem too. We hold women to standards we don’t hold for men. The idea of the widow that’s supposed to wear black forever — that is still very much alive in our culture. That’s an image of a woman not a man.”

Dr. Charnas says that she often refers to the concept of bittersweetness with her patients, that “the beginning of a relationship marks a certain finality to the old one, which is painful and bitter. But it’s accompanied by the sweetness of discovering a new partner, and a new part of you.” She emphasizes that it’s critical to “allow for that mix of feelings that seem opposing. The sadness doesn’t just leave because you’re happy.”

Amy Santamaria, a 46-year-old, Brooklyn-based mom of two young children, shared her story of loss with me. Her husband Gareth was diagnosed with cancer at 39 and died two years later. Theirs had been a storybook romance. “I knew sort of instantly,” she said. Two weeks after they met, he gave her a letter sealed with wax predicting their marriage, which they opened together a year later. Amy told me that she hopes any future relationship “is a continuation of my story. I don’t ever want to forget what happened. Whoever I am with will need to accept that there is this other important part of my life that I keep very present for me and my kids.”

After a year of perusing a few apps, “as a sort of exposure therapy,” Amy has recently started dating. “There’s no guidebook for this, no instruction manual,” she told me.

She said that she worries about how she will welcome someone new into her home. “Because Gareth is woven into the fabric of my living space. He was a vintage record collector, and those records are in the middle of the living room. There’s art that we bought and collected on the walls; his ring is on my nightstand. I don’t ever envision hiding all that away. So, someone who comes into my life must be comfortable enough with themselves that they allow the space to be with Gareth, too.”

How do we allow for that space in a new relationship? How do we keep our loved ones with us while remaining open to someone new? It’s helpful to remember not only what the departed would have wanted, but what a new partner might want too. In an episode of the serialized television drama “Modern Love,” based on the popular New York Times column, Minnie Driver plays a woman struggling with how to hold onto memories of her first husband. Her new husband reassures her: “I knew how much you loved him going into this. I’m a grownup. But I also know how much room there is in there and that is what drew me to you.”

When the issue of grief comes up in my group, and I suggest that my patients need not struggle so hard to “move on,” I am often asked: “But how? How do I incorporate him into my life” without it becoming crippling.

They are good questions. I ask my patients to start with stories. Tell them to everyone you can: the stories of the two of you. Because stories not only keep memories alive, they also neutralize their debilitating power.

“During our wedding vows,” Amy told me, “we asked for our community to take a vow that they would be by our sides. At Gareth’s memorial I reminded people of that vow and asked them please not to forget it now.”

We tend to think when we grieve it is in steps, and then we are done. But we can’t, and shouldn’t forget our stories, we should incorporate them. Our stories never leave us.

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