When commitment feels rare and everyone’s lonely, Change of Heart is a Valentine's Week investigation of what makes relationships so hard—and how they can be better.
On the first day of March 2017, in the late afternoon on the east coast, Emily Smith of the New York Post's Page Six published a story that would reintroduce an individual currently embroiled in a range of personal, professional, and political drama to the national consciousness: Hunter Biden, the second eldest son of former vice president and current presidential wannabe Joe Biden, was in a relationship with Hallie Biden, the widow of his older brother Beau, who had died two years earlier of cancer.
Since that day, Hunter's life has stayed in the headlines of both gossip websites and well-respected print publications, his problems stretching as far as the nation of Ukraine and as close as the recent attempt to impeach the president. The former outlets, though, have remained less concerned with Hunter’s role in global politics than with the series of events that preceded and immediately followed the news that he was dating Hallie: his contentious divorce proceedings from his first wife, eventual break-up with Hallie, and very quick remarriage to a woman with whom he is now expecting a child. In the midst of all that, Hunter fathered a child out of wedlock, and has only recently seemed to settle a complicated custody case with its mother.
But before the rest of this fallout there was his dating his sister-in-law, news that provoked a wide range of reactions, from shock and titillation to outright judgment. "I think we are underestimating how weird it is that Joe Biden’s daughter-in-law married his other son when the son she was married to died," one slightly exaggerated but popular tweet reminisced last year.
As a member of a highly public political family, Hunter has been subject to a good deal more attention than most of us, and as such, the reaction to his life's choices cannot be considered necessarily one-to-one with the average person’s. He has also had a life full of extreme suffering: His sister and mother died in a car accident when he was a child, and in the years since he has struggled with addiction. In a piece for The New Yorker last year, he explained that it was actually the loss of Beau that brought him together with Hallie. “We were sharing a very specific grief,” Hunter told writer Adam Entous. “I started to think of Hallie as the only person in my life who understood my loss.”
Written out plainly, those sentiments seem simple enough, but grief rarely is, particularly when other people get involved in it. In The New Yorker, Hunter revealed that he specifically asked his father to put out a statement supporting his new relationship. "I said, ‘Dad, if people find out, but they think you’re not approving of this, it makes it seem wrong. The kids have to know, Dad, that there’s nothing wrong with this, and the one person who can tell them that is you.’” When Hunter shared that he and Hallie had split up, he suggested that a major reason was the criticism they'd received: “All we got was shit from everybody, all the time… It was really hard."
As I consumed an increasing number of details about Hunter's personal life, I realized I'd seen versions of it—and the response to it—everywhere. It was in advice columns (My best friend died from sucide and her estranged husband and I are now blending our families, but his daughter doesn't like it when we have sex; I married my dead best friend's husband and now my husband and are debating telling my stepson he has a brother; my cousin's widower tried to kiss me and then accused me of implying I thought he didn't love his wife; I have feelings for the caregiver of my deceased spouse; I'm dating my former girlfriend and close friend of my late wife; I'm dating the illegitimate son of my former spouse and my children are furious; I'm engaged to my wife's sister but her parents still don't know and I'm worried about how they'll react). It was in movies and TV shows, both historical and contemporary (My Sister's Sister; Brothers; Catch & Release; Sorry For Your Loss; Fleabag; Deadwood; Game of Thrones). It was a part of the lives of writers whose work I followed (Elizabeth Gilbert and Matt Zoller Seitz, whose writing about The Leftovers and his own grief actually looped back around and inspired an episode of the show). In was the subject of personal essays ("When Sally Langdown married for a second time she didn't have to change her name - or even her mother-in-law") and articles ("The sister of a terminally ill woman agreed to look after her children and marry her husband after a deathbed wish"; "In a fascinating recent case, after two authors who wrote bestselling memoirs about their final months ailing with cancer passed away, their widowed spouses fell in love with each other") and on message boards.
All relationships are interesting to their participants, many are interesting to their witnesses, and some are interesting to those far away. But there is an inherent fascination in the twist of something more complex, something that a shared loss brings. It introduces factors into the picture that are hard to parse: a society's value structures and how they interact, sometimes painfully for those involved, with grieving and loss. I was interested to see Hunter Biden was dating his sister-in-law, and curious about it, though not in the least surprised. But while there were certainly many who saw two sad people coming together in a seemingly unorthodox fashion, there were others whose judgment unintentionally peeled back a layer to reveal how much we struggle to hold one another in our darkest times.
Kara Lynn Bell Tennant lives in a small city in West Virginia. Thirty-three, she and her late husband Terry were high school sweethearts who met during the summer, in that liminal time between what was and what will be. They got married at 18, and had a child soon after. But when their daughter was 10 and Kara was 30, Terry died suddenly after a heart attack.
At first, for Kara, there was numbness and disbelief. The early weeks and months were about logistical matters—getting documents handled, figuring out money and what was in his name and what was in hers. The things that keep you busy when you wish you didn't need to be. And then, a few months later, in the midst of the isolation and the pain and figuring out what her life was supposed to look like, there was Cliff.
Cliff and Kara had met at around the same time Kara had met Terry—he'd trained her at her first job—and he had been good friends with Terry; they'd known each other since 6th grade. "It was fairly quick, but it was also just easy," Kara said of the beginning of her new relationship. "He invited me over for a bonfire over the summer, just trying to be supportive of me and my daughter, knowing that we might need to get out of the house and have some fun, and we kind of started hanging out after that. What started out as a supportive friend then turned into more than that."
Kara was extremely careful about moving forward with this potential relationship: She went to Terry's family first to ask them if they thought it was a good idea or would hurt them, but they were really supportive. "I'm really thankful for that because if they had really looked at me and been like, ‘No, we really don't think you should that,’ I might not have, because that's how much I love them."
Some of Kara's fear begins with the simpler issue at hand: When is the right time to find a new partner after your first one dies? ("I went through a lot of fear that people would think I moved too fast, that people would think I was disrespecting my late husband," she said.) Many of us have passed judgment on an ex or ex of someone we love in cases that involve just the death of a relationship; if the ex moves on "too quickly," they can easily be considered insensitive, or even cruel.
But the first issue is complicated by the second: is there ever a right time for a new partner if it’s someone who was close to the family? Kara was focused on the idea of ease when it came to picking Cliff, whom she has since married. "It was easier for me to enter into a relationship with him because he has known my daughter her whole life. He knew my husband. He's watched our relationship grow from the beginning, he knows how important he was to me, so I don't ever have to explain that. He's not upset that I have pictures of him on the wall, or that I have his box of ashes on top of where the computer sits. He's never felt jealous of that relationship. I never had to sit and explain my relationship to him." In a world demanding answers and explanations, he was simply a respite—even if he meant she would have to answer new questions too.
There's nothing that disrupts life more than death. And with death comes grief, a process that has been extensively studied and debated over the past several decades. At this point, researchers have largely moved away from the oft-misunderstood Elisabeth Kübler-Ross theory, first proposed in the 60s, of the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). As it turns out, life—and the loss of it—is hardly that systematic. Experts in the field do seem to agree that if the experience of grief is universal, each grief is unique—or at least uniquely capable of making you feel alone.
It is also widely agreed that the current Western—and specifically American—aversion towards death and its related processes hasn't helped anyone much. And while there are books that aim to bridge that gap, ones that are devoted to dating after losing a partner, and studies on topics such as how widows and widowers may grieve differently, there have never been, as far as I can tell, any substantial studies or books or projects that address falling in love with someone who has shared your loss during that time. Experts and sources alike agreed that they hadn't come across anything that spoke to it, with one therapist I spoke to calling it "a subset issue."
The more I thought about it, though, the more it seemed to be, if not the issue, indicative of the messiest parts of the seemingly more obvious ones, sitting smack dab in the middle of a Venn diagram of problems. So much writing about grief is fixated on the lack of discussion about it, and how hard it is to find things that specifically speak to any one experience. Perhaps that is, ironically, the one commonality among all these different grief experiences—the sadly universal fact that, in a world full of grief narratives, none are ever yours.
There are certainly the aforementioned books and groups devoted to people trying to date again after a loss, and there are similar resources for people who are trying to cope with loss of a sibling or friend. But there is little to no advice about what to do if the person you'd like to "move on" with exists across that already-intimate spectrum.
According to some experts, siblings and close friends are particularly likely to experience what is called disenfranchised grief after someone they love dies, which means they feel as though their grief is not being seen, or that they're not allowed to have it, because they weren't in a "primary" relationship with the deceased. "Each culture has its own expectations on how you are supposed to mourn," T.J. Wray writes in her book Surviving the Death of Sibling. "However, one thing remains: When you violate these cultural or generational norms, you find that your support is limited—your grief is disenfranchised.”
There are other ways that situations like these can feel isolating; some studies have shown that losing a partner young can result in more intense grief. We celebrate when older couples find love again, due to some nebulous combination of, if I'm being uncharitable, not caring about where they situate themselves in the structure of our social circles, and knowing that they are ostensibly nearer to the end of their lives. They have less to lose if they violate social rules, and the communities around them do too.
Whatever pressures there are in modern American society to choose a socially acceptable second partner following the loss of the first one, there are centuries-old historical precedents where choosing one’s next spouse from within a close social circle, and even non-blood-related family, is encouraged. Arguably the most famous is the Book of Ruth. It's a story echoed across scripture; in it, Ruth is encouraged by her mother-in-law Naomi to remarry a relative of Naomi's family when Ruth's husband Mahlon dies. After other men in the family decline to marry her, Ruth marries Boaz, a “kinsman” of her husband’s. "Moreover Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of Mahlon, have I purchased to be my wife, to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance, that the name of the dead be not cut off from among his brethren, and from the gate of his place: ye are witnesses this day," Boaz says to the community observers around him. In translation: The family name and all the fealty that comes with it can continue in a way it wouldn't be able to if Ruth had remarried someone else.
What Ruth and Boaz entered into is a variant of what is called a yibbum in Hebrew, and a “levirate marriage” more broadly—when the brother of a man is encouraged or expected to marry his brother's widow to, depending on the society and people involved, maintain family ties, keep the name going, ensure financial stability, ease issues of inheritance, and/or provide for the widow. Levirate marriage and its many iterations—its fraternal twin is sororate marriage, when a widower marries his deceased wife's sister—have been de rigueur since ancient times in a wide variety of societies and cultures, such as among the Mongols and the Eskimo, and in Tibet, Turkey, and India. Levirate marriage can also be called "wife inheritance," and it's a practice that still occurs, for example, in some parts of Kenya. That's partially because, in that nation, "The basis of the family is consanguineal," as John DeFrain writes in The World of Bereavement: Cultural Perspectives on Death in Families, "meaning that it is based on blood ties of relatives." By contrast, in the Western world, family relationships are largely "conjugal, which considers the most important relationship in a family to be between the spouses."
This concern over what a family is and who gets to police it is echoed by historian Stephanie Coontz in her book Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, which outlines the myriad of different marriage structures that have been embraced throughout human history. One notable thing Coontz points out is when and how concerns over incest or supposedly too-close, inappropriate relationships have bubbled up to the surface of varying societies. Marriage, Coontz notes, is just one way to guarantee the things we need—such as keeping gene pools diverse—happen, but it is "the only way to get in-laws."
It is "difficult to claim there is some universal model for the success or happiness of a marriage," Coontz writes. But in the Western world, it often seems like there must be a universal model of marriage if others aren't being welcomed into the fold widely (see, for much of our history, any relationship that wasn't heterosexual). That relationships were set up almost entirely to regulate property and organize extended families has been brushed aside, a quaint memory of times past.
When I got Coontz on the phone to talk a bit about this, she explained that the acceptability of remarrying someone in the family has ebbed and flowed depending on the priorities of any given community as it changed size and scope. "If you go back to the earliest egalitarian societies, incest rules were there to make sure that you didn't just stick around your own family and your own kin and your own neighborhood," she said. "It was to extend relations of cooperation. And so the idea that you would stay too close was bad. On the other hand, as soon as you get social stratification, you get some people being quite interested in staying close to and marrying within their kinship, like the aristocracy. And I think a lot of the Catholic rules against it were actually attempts to control and limit the ability of the aristocracy to develop a kind of political and kin monopolies."
For example, as Anne D. Wallace, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, outlined in a 2012 paper, 19th-century Britain was absolutely obsessed with whether or not a man could marry the sister of his dead wife, so much so that it was the subject of "protracted and heated debate" for decades—even in Parliament. A 1835 bill called the The Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act, which prevented men from marrying the sisters of their dead wives, was spurred on by concerns about what would happen to the son who stood to inherit from a duke doing just that. The law wasn't overturned until 1907, but in the meantime, the drama revolved around whether allowing such relationships would lead to incest.
Who this pressure over who people should couple up with and how comes from has shifted over the generations as well; it's only been in recent decades that in-laws have lost some of their power over relationships, and that friends, acquaintances, and people we work with have moved into their turf.
"I would suspect—but certainly don't have any data for it—that one reason that it bothers some people is that it disrupts a pattern of a set of interactions," Coontz said of our modern examples of levirate relationships, whether they be with actual siblings or very close friends. When your best friend couples up with your other friend and one of them was originally with your deceased third friend, the balance that once existed has been shaken. Whether you are capable on an individual basis of seeing that the relationships around you that are forming could one day be your new normal is a mysterious alchemy somewhat like a game of Operation; one jerk against the wall, and everything gets loud and uncomfortable real quick.
Cara Vickery and her boyfriend Don Lemaster experienced this firsthand when they started dating after her husband died. Cara, 47, met her late husband Kris when she was 19 and he was 26, had a daughter, and got married several years later. ("It was a kind of non-traditional beginning," is how Cara described it.) When Kris was 43, he drowned in a riptide in Costa Rica while they were on vacation with friends.
"Looking back, I realize I was probably really in shock for the first year. I am a real go-getter person, so I think I just was like, ‘I'm just going to do what I have to do, and plow through this, and go back to work in a week so I can look like I'm productive.’ You know what I mean?" Cara explained, rapidly and energetically telling her story as she must have lived it after returning back to her small town in Ohio. For her, as was the case with Kara with a K, the difference in her grief experience was her support network; she had a large group of friends who kept checking on her.
That was how she met Don—or rather, found him in a romantic sense, two years after Kris died. Don had been a part of that big group, and she'd originally been introduced to him through Kris. Twice divorced himself, Don, 55, and Cara found themselves thrown together as the single ones in their group of married friends.
While Cara and Don hadn't been good friends, Don and Kris were, in Don's words, best friends, who had known each other since grade school. So when Cara and Don got together, the two had many discussions about whether they were going to date. Don was particularly concerned it would seem like he was trying to take Kris's place.
One connector was Cara's daughter, who has known Don since she was a baby. "She knew him and I think she felt a comfort that she wasn't some psycho or serial killer," Cara said. "It was pretty, I don't know how to say it, ironic, that her daughter came up and grabbed me and said, 'You need to take care of my mom now,'" Don echoed, of a telling interaction after Kris's death.
But while they had the support of her daughter and most of their friends, not everyone agreed. One couple they'd been friends with entirely left their friend group over this new relationship. "I thought some people would have some questions, but at our age, I thought they'd be a little more mature about it, and if they had a problem with it, talk to me," Don said.
"I tried to give people the benefit of the doubt," Cara said. Of the man in the couple who cut them out, she tried to look at it from his perspective: "That guy's best friend was probably my husband. So I think he felt very close. And maybe it wasn't coming from a place from being mean, but I just tried to think, ‘Well, why would he act like this?’ And I thought, ‘Well, maybe he just feels like he has to like, honor my husband’. And I think maybe his grief wasn't processed, so that was too much for him."
"I did have another couple that didn't really like it, but they managed it in a much more effective way," she said. "They just came and said, 'I have a problem with this—not because I have a problem with what you're doing, it's just hard for me to see you moving on. Please give us some time; we'll get there, but it's not because we think bad of you, it's something with ourselves and we just need to work on it.' So I thought that was very nice."
With death, emotions are pushed to the brink, loyalties and allegiances tested to the most extreme. In Kara and Cliff's case, while her first husband's family was entirely supportive of her new relationship, and even seemed to take comfort in the fact that it was with someone they knew, some friends and family questioned whether it was a good idea.
I posited to Kara that perhaps those who had been critical hadn't understood her and Cliff's experience. "Now that you say that," she replied, "some of the people that weren't supportive of us were definitely people who had not really gone through what we've been through." In the case of one friend who had been judgmental, he changed his mind with time: "The one guy that was really upset and was talking about how [Cliff] was being disrespectful, he actually came back around a couple months later and said, 'Hey I'm sorry that messaged you like that and I'd like to still be friends.'"
The separation, the rift between people because of a rending in the social strata suggests that perhaps some don't know how it feels to have that bone-deep loneliness, and how much it could soothe you to have someone who not only knows how you feel, but knows how you feel about that one person.
"I had a guy I played ball with, golfed with, from another town, he said that the same thing happened with his group of friends—one of his friends died, and another friend ended up marrying his wife in their group," Don said. "He goes, 'I don't see what the problem is.' I go, 'I don't either, but to each their own I guess.'"
Regardless of how the people around them feel about it, it seems entirely case-by-case as to whether a relationship formed during grief, particularly after a sudden or traumatic death, is a healthy one for the people in it. The widows of firefighters who had died during 9/11 who coupled up with coworkers of their late husbands came up frequently in the literature I read. Feverishly covered by the mostly New York-based press at the time, the rash of firefighter husbands who'd left their wives and formed new relationships out of ones that were formerly platonic was a subject of extreme fascination. (''You know, life's too short. That kind of thing," one firefighter said in an interview on why he'd left his wife for a widow.) There are also the infamous examples of widows marrying the brothers of their dead husbands after war—some willing, some much, much less so. (Such a situation was actually required in Britain so that widows could collect their husbands’ pensions; only recently was that law overturned).
While I could find no data to suggest why or if a more traumatic loss might result in a new relationship between two people close to the deceased, therapists agree that a relationship coming out of any death should be gone into with caution, to avoid a sort of emotional "rebound reaction."
"You're grieving, you're both in vulnerable positions, you're both emotionally open," Kenneth Doka, a professor of gerontology at the Graduate School of The College of New Rochelle and the editor of Omega, the leading journal on death and dying, said. "As I think about it, I'm probably surprised it doesn't happen more often."
Though the experts in the field I spoke to said this kind of post-grief relationship had come up rarely in their years treating patients, that didn't mean they thought there was anything particularly uncommon about it. "Most people are interested in comfort, right?" said R. Benyamin Cirlin of the Center for Loss and Renewal. "Most people are interested in being known and being acknowledged, and particularly after you've lost someone you really loved, you've had a core level loss, it's good to be with someone who really gets you."
"When you lose a spouse or a partner, not only are you losing the person themselves, you're losing history, you're losing a witness to your history," he continued. "And so in some ways, to marry or get involved with someone who you know or you've known for many years, you kind of acquire someone who kind of gets your history. I think that's a really powerful thing and it makes a lot of sense to me."
He said, however, that they'd recommend a large degree of caution before entering into such a relationship. "If I were a counselor and somebody came to me and said, 'My husband's younger brother has been around, he's single—or maybe even not single—I'd say, okay, let's look at this, let's really examine what's going on. Are you providing support, and how is that emerging, and what may happen, and what are going to be the implications of that, and are you ready to start a new relationship?"
That advice is along the lines of what Ryan (a pseudonym given due to the concern he had over this very personal story being made public), who lost his wife suddenly while they were young, took to heart when he started feeling a sudden attraction for her sister just a few weeks after the death. He describes those feelings as "probably pretty natural," given that he was deep in grief and also had experienced a sudden, extreme break in the amount of physical connection he was receiving.
"When you go from that amount of physical affection, to absolutely nothing…" he said, trailing off, before starting again. "And sure, you get the hugs from strangers, and friends and family, people, but it's not the same. You go through almost a withdrawal that's encapsulated in your grief that makes it even more complicated."
Ryan never acted on or discussed his feelings with his sister-in-law, nor have they discussed them since, but he did bring them up with his therapist, who specifically called out the possibility of them forming a relationship as “a recipe for disaster," and cautioned him not to do anything rash.
"I think I appreciated my therapist telling me, ‘Don't do this,’" he said, pointing out how part of him knew it would be the wrong decision. "Because at that point in time, I really wasn't accountable to anyone. When you're in a relationship, you have a person that you're kind of accountable to about your behavior."
What Ryan describes is called transference. "When you're both in a vulnerable position it's easier to connect," Doka explained. "That's why clients sometimes fall in love with their counselors."
"You have two people," he added, speaking generally, "they're both deeply concerned about the loss, they're comforting each other, and probably even in the process giving hugs that are affectionate rather than romantic, but it's sometimes a thin line."
"Looking back at it now, I just don't really attach any emotion nor opinion to it," Ryan said of his brief impulse. "I recognize that I did a lot of things when I was in the midst of my grief that I just would not describe as characteristic of me, or say that I'm proud of, because I was just in that much pain that I was doing whatever I could to distract or numb the pain for whatever period of time I could."
When you have found someone and it doesn't feel like a mistake, and even if people have accepted that relationship, it can be hard to accept yourself.
"I think it was really difficult for him at first," Cara said of Don. "I know obviously now it's gotten a little bit better. But I think it was a struggle for him. I think he felt a little bit guilty about it. My daughter just had a baby, and there's some conversations where he's like, I want to be around her but then I feel a little weird—he should be here with his grandbaby when I'm playing with her. My daughter even had said to him, you want her to call you [grandpa]? He's like, no, I just feel like, that's my friend's title, not mine.
"And I think I struggle with that myself a little bit too. There's times I still feel guilty, a little. I don't know why you should feel guilty, but you have a guilt. Like, okay, I'm moving on and I'm happy and should I even be happy knowing that you lost your life… It's hard to navigate what was and what is and sometimes lines blur and some days it's very clear."
But getting to fall in love again and having the person you fall for be someone who understands you can be more powerful than the confusion. "We have a picture of [Kris] on our sofa table thing," Cara said. "A story will come up, he'll say, 'Oh, Kris and I did that,' and I'll say, 'I never knew that.' And it makes me kind of like, ‘Aww, that's a new story I haven't heard.’”
Don echoed the same sentiment. "I thought I knew him well but I like hearing the stories from when I wasn't around. And he was a character, he really was," he said, chuckling. "Just to hear the stories. I know she likes talking about him, and that's fine. It doesn't bother me not even one bit."
These new relationships are, like any you'd enter into under any circumstances, completely different than the ones that came before, a new love with new highs and lows. But it was Kara's words that I couldn't get out of mind, thinking of them as I lay in bed at night next to the person I hope to spend the rest of my life with, listening to the day close before we'd get to begin another one. I had asked her if she felt like people had different expectations for young widows and widowers, and she had affirmed she did.
"But why would I want to be alone for the rest of my life?" she asked rhetorically. "I was only 30 when he passed away. Everyone needs companionship."
"That's what I missed the most when he passed away; just someone to hold me at night," she continued, in a voice stripped so bare it made me ache to hear it. "Like I'm laying in bed and I can listen to them breathe. I laid here forever with my current husband, with my head on his chest, just listening to his heartbeat, reminding myself that he was alive.
"When you lose somebody, you need someone to support you through that, and that's what my husband has been. And I never have to explain that to him. Because he gets it too. We cried together on the anniversary of his death. And that's just something that I would not have with someone that didn't know him. And it's just so nice to not have to explain."
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