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Understanding the Complex, Occasionally Scandalous Act of Falling in Love With Someone You’re Grieving With

These new relationships go way beyond two ‘broken’ people looking for companionship

Since we may have memed President Biden into existence, you can expect to hear a lot about Uncle Joe and his family for at least the next year, if not longer. Along with that will inevitably come some coverage of how Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, was dating Hallie Biden, the widow of his late brother, for the last two years. Though the two broke up recently, they’ve been dogged by coverage of their relationship as if it was something scandalous, illicit and worthy of scorn.

While Hunter was still married when the relationship began, it’s unclear if he and his wife were already separated at the time. Regardless, it’s safe to say that none of this is any of our fucking business, and while it may make for tabloid headlines, the concept of family members becoming romantically involved after grieving over the same loss happens more often than you might think.

“It’s very biblical,” says grief counselor Amy Olshever. “That used to be what people did.” She’s right — in the Old Testament, one passage out of Deuteronomy reads as follows: “If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her.” Such a marriage in Judaism was known as a levirate marriage — “levir” being Latin for “husband’s brother” — and it’s also been common among Kurdish people, Somali people and many others.

In some cases, a marriage like this — also referred to as a “widow inheritance” — was required by the customs of the respective culture so that the widow and the children of the deceased would remain within the same family. This also pertained to the wealth of the deceased, so that their money and possessions remained in the family. Of course, it probably never occurred to anyone to give the wife the money and let her marry whoever she damn well pleased, but this is, sadly, hardly surprising.

This would also sometimes occur in the U.S., not as a matter of law, but as one of duty, as the surviving brother might feel compelled to marry his brother’s widow to ensure she was provided for, and his kin would be fed. This was a plot point on the HBO Western Deadwood, where Timothy Olyphant’s Seth Bullock was married to his brother’s widow.

While the custom of wife inheritance still occurs in some countries today, it has become much less common in the U.S. as women have obtained more rights and independence. That said, laws, customs, inheritance and duty weren’t the only motivators for why these types of relationships occurred. Sometimes, love and bonding actually played a part, as it may when these kinds of relationships occur today. And while it may seem strange — or worse, scandalous — it’s not all that surprising if you understand some of what may happen while grieving.

For one thing, the grieving process can be very isolating. “Friends, family and colleagues often don’t want to bring up the topic of your loss in case they upset you and many people find themselves with no one to talk to about their grief,” explains Elizabeth Postle, author of the blog Grief and Sympathy and the book A Healing Hug for Alzheimer’s Caregivers. She adds that being able to share your grief with someone, especially if it’s over the same loss, can be a tremendous comfort. Where many people will try not to upset you by avoiding talking about the deceased, for those mourning with you, things can be much more open.

While an outsider might assume that this kind of relationship would be born out of vulnerability over a shared trauma, Cheryl Espinosa-Jones, a counselor and radio host of Good Grief on VoiceAmerica, says that while vulnerability may play a role, there might be other feelings that are even more prevalent. “Being there for the end of someone’s life isn’t only traumatic, but also very meaningful and often very intimate. For instance, the people who were in the house with me when my wife died, while I didn’t get involved with any of them, we have a deep bond. It’s more about that than anything else. These people have shared a very deep experience together.”

Espinosa-Jones also points to something called “post traumatic growth.” “It’s not commonly known how often people open up as a result of a loss, as opposed to shut down. About 60 to 90 percent of people who have a trauma of any kind go on to say that they grew in some way as a result of that experience.” There are five major areas that have been identified with post traumatic growth, and among them is a deepening of your relationships, as well as an increase in your own personal courage, both of which might open you up to new possibilities — even with people that one may never have seen themselves with romantically. This is why Espinosa-Jones believes that those who are grieving may be stronger than you think, and that their new relationship may not just be two “broken” people looking for some companionship.

Can it happen too soon after a death, though? Well, sure. As Espinosa-Jones says, “There are aspects of early loss that are hard to share, and if you get into a relationship too quickly, sometimes it’s hard to get enough room for the grief.” And while this might seem contrary to the idea that a shared loss may bring you together, there are still parts of this process that are private, especially for a spouse. Even when two people grieve over the same lost person, both of those people will grieve differently. Some aspects may overlap, but on a personal level, every loss is different for every person.

So how long should you wait? It’s hard to generalize anything like this, but Olshever says she broadly recommends waiting at least a year before making any major life changes following the death of a spouse. “It has to do with anniversaries,” Olshever explains. “Each of the things that happen in the first year can be very triggering. The first birthday, the first anniversary, the first anniversary of the death, all of these things can be very hard.” There’s also things like picking out a headstone, having to take care of taxes and medical bills and a mountain of other types of paperwork that you have to take care of in that first year, any of which can cause a flood of emotions to come back to you.

Whether you’re ready is essentially down to your emotional state. Olshever explains that during the early period of “acute grief,” people experience a yearning for their lost loved one in a way that they cannot possibly see their life moving forward without them. When that yearning starts to abate and you’re not experiencing it all the time, though, you’re able to move forward a little. One way to tell where you’re at in the grieving process, “has to do with your ability to talk about that person without re-experiencing the trauma of losing them,” Olshever notes. While none of these provide an exact example of when you’re ready for a new relationship — no matter who it’s with — these barometers may give you an idea that you’re moving forward on an emotional level. You may even begin to experience some of that post traumatic growth.

Even if you’re ready to begin a new relationship, beginning one with, for example, your deceased husband’s brother, can be rife with complex emotions, the biggest one being guilt. Guilt is often felt by a surviving spouse regardless of the situation, as they feel guilty for simply having a life without their loved one. Grieving is hard, but it may also be somewhat comforting as it continues to link you to the deceased. When somebody begins to move on from their grief, the guilt can rise because it’s like they’re losing a part of their spouse all over again.

Espinosa-Jones says that part of that guilt may also come from what the survivor imagines would be the response from the deceased: “How would my husband feel about me dating his brother?” Imagining a conversation or writing a letter is often a valuable exercise for a survivor and may be able to provide a level of catharsis. In this specific situation, while one might think that the deceased would be as weirded out by this as you are, Espinosa-Jones encourages you to imagine the entire conversation. “Would this person really not want you to be happy? Would they not want you to move on?” she asks.

When dealing with the loss of her wife, Espinosa-Jones shares that her spouse had been sick for over a decade, so they’d had the discussion about finding love again, and by getting her permission, Espinosa-Jones felt that not only was it “okay,” but that she’s fulfilling the wishes of her partner. Many, or perhaps most people, don’t get to have these conversations, though, and it can make the process harder, especially in a situation where you were both close to the deceased. Because of this, Espinosa-Jones encourages you to go through this exercise and try to explore what that person really might have said, because she feels that not many people would expect the survivor to be miserable for the rest of their life.

As we’ve seen, though, the judgement one faces in this kind of relationship isn’t purely internal. If you happen to be the family of a pretty popular vice president, you have the misfortune of facing judgement from much of the country, but private individuals may still deal with scorn from their own loved ones. “Sometimes the children or parents of the person who died get upset and say you can’t have loved them as much as they did,” Postle says. “But you know how untrue this is. After all, when a parent has children, they love them all. The love you had for your lost partner isn’t diminished because of your new love. It isn’t a competition and the family may accept the new situation eventually when they adjust and you can all discuss your feelings.”

As for whether it can last, that’s hard to say. While it doesn’t seem like it worked out for the Bidens, that’s not necessarily true of everyone else in their situation (public glare notwithstanding). Case in point, this Postle story about someone close to her: “A close relative lost his wife. In the past, the wife’s best friend had always joined them to go to a gardening group. After his wife died, he and the friend both continued to be members of the club. The loneliness they had both felt was eased, and after a few months, their relationship developed romantically. They have now been married for many years. His wife would have been happy to think that they both found love and comfort once more. Seeing someone regularly who gives you this level of support and company can develop into a lasting loving relationship.”

It all comes down to a pretty simple idea: Just because you’ve lost someone, it doesn’t mean you’re forgetting about them if you decide to eventually move on with someone new. It’s a complicated, immensely sad and unfortunately scandalous situation at times, but the silver lining is that, sometimes, we can find love again after going through one of the worst things imaginable.

Shouldn’t we all applaud that?