Reprinted from Psychology Today October 8, 2023
Copyright: Deborah Carr
The “Golden Bachelor” can teach us five things about losing (and finding) love.
More than 4 million viewers tuned in to the premiere of The Golden Bachelor, captivated by 72-year-old widower, restaurateur, and grandfather Gerry Turner’s search for love the second time around.
I was among those 4 million viewers. As a sociologist who has spent more than two decades studying older adults’ romantic lives and losses, I feared the worst. Would the long-running ABC franchise match up septuagenarian bachelor Gerry with 40-year old women, considered “old” by Bachelor standards? Would the series rely on cheap ageist jokes about Viagra and senility? Would it make a mockery of older adults in their quest for love, playing up tired old tropes of sexual desperation?
My fears were quickly put to rest after watching the premiere. The 22 women vying for Gerry’s affection are smart, accomplished, witty women ages 60 to 75. They support each other, laugh together, and even help one another glam up for their dates with Gerry. The vibe in the mansion, where the 22 contestants live together during the show’s taping, was playful rather than competitive.
Encouraged by this auspicious start, I watched – with trepidation – the second episode. It was remarkable, and one of the few raw portrayals of widowhood, grief, and loneliness that I can recall seeing on network TV. Gerry lost Toni, his wife of 42 years, to an unexpected bacterial infection. About half of the female contestants also are widowed, and the other half are divorced — all after decades-long marriages. This aligns with statistical snapshots of older women’s family lives today; about 18 percent of U.S. women aged 65 and above are divorced, while an equal share are widowed. (Most are currently married, while less than 5 percent are lifelong singles).
Here are five important truths about widowhood, grief, and loss that we can learn from The Golden Bachelor.
Grief doesn’t follow a predictable schedule. The pain of loss lessens with time, thankfully. But feelings of sadness and yearning for one’s late spouse can pop up when you least expect it. Some widows and widowers have difficult moments on their late spouse’s birthday or their wedding anniversary. Simple sights, sounds, and smells can trigger bittersweet memories of one’s late spouse. That’s what happened to 60-year old interior designer Nancy on her group date with Gerry.
The women were donning fanciful costumes as part of a mock photo shoot, and Nancy chose a demure white lace wedding gown. While her fellow contestants were laughing and hamming it up for the camera in their biker jackets and psychedelic mini-dresses, Nancy was overcome with deep emotion and started to sob. The dress reminded her of her wedding day – 36 years earlier — to her late husband, a moment she still calls “the best day of my life.” Gerry soothed her by sharing a similar experience: He had recently walked past a bakery, and the smell of cinnamon instantly triggered memories of his late wife, who baked cinnamon rolls every Christmas. They both described their grief flashes the same way: “I didn’t expect it…it came out of nowhere.”
But despite the raw emotions and initial pain of these flashes, both Nancy and Gerry recognized that these moments were reminders of how fortunate they were to have had a great love. Grief, as the saying goes, is the price we pay for love.
Sudden deaths can be especially hard. For most older adults, the death of a spouse comes after a long chronic illness, like cancer or heart disease. That often means a long and grueling spell of caregiving, and the experience of anticipatory grief – or the sadness of knowing that death is near. But for several Golden Bachelor contestants, their spouse’s death came quickly and unexpectedly after a short illness. Gerry’s wife fell ill to a lethal bacterial infection just days after the couple purchased their dream lake house – robbing them of a happy retirement together. That’s part of the reason why he bonded so quickly and deeply with Theresa, a 70-year-old securities professional, who lost her husband Billy suddenly after 42 years of marriage. Although Billy was managing kidney disease, he had an unexpected turn for the worse. Theresa ran home from work to find an ailing Billy, who then died in her arms.
All losses are devastating, but the kinds of supports that widow(er)s need, and their personal timetable for re-entering the dating world may vary dramatically based on how sudden or anticipated the loss was.
Moving on is healthy. Don’t feel guilty for finding a new love. Widows and widowers sometimes feel social pressure to stay single for life, out of respect for their late spouse. But norms have changed over the past century. Widows no longer wear black clothing for life, or withdraw from the social world. Bereaved persons who wish to find a new love should re-enter the dating world, once the initial sting of loss has passed.
For many, that’s what their late spouse would have wanted. Joan, a 70-year-old private school administrator, shared that when her late husband was dying of pancreatic cancer, he urged her to someday date again and find happiness. At that time, she wasn’t ready to accept that her husband would die, and closed her mind off to dating. But with time, she, like Gerry, felt it was appropriate to honor her late spouse’s wish that she find love again.
Yet others prefer not to date – cherishing their new freedom and independence after a decades-long marriage. For some, friendships fill the emotional void left by their loss. Some feel that their late spouse was their “one and only,” and aren’t interested in pursuing a new relationship. Widows and widowers know best what makes them happy, and should pursue their happiness however they see fit.
Children can help (or hurt) new relationships. Gerry made it clear why he was named The Golden Bachelor. His daughters urged him to apply, wanting their grieving dad to find love again. Gerry’s not alone. Children (and even grandchildren) can be one’s greatest supporters and helpers in their pursuit of new love. The younger generation can teach important lessons about romance in the 21st century, sharing tips on how to use dating apps and websites to find a partner and the best way to construct a text message. This encouragement is important and can help erase any feelings of guilt a widow(er) might feel when dipping their toe back into the dating pool.
Of course, not all children are helpful. They are sometimes so overcome with their own grief for their deceased parent that they don’t want their surviving parent to move on. Others worry about bringing a new person into the family, skeptical that the new love might be insincere, or worse yet, scam a parent out of their life savings. Well-meaning skepticism can be healthy, but children – especially those who have had warm and loving relationships with their parent – should trust their parent to make wise romantic decisions.
There’s no single way to cope with loss. Gerry and the widows he’s dating have each coped with loss in different ways. While Gerry found comfort in looking at old photos of his late wife, Joan admitted it was too painful to see images of her deceased husband. Some of the women leapt back into work and socializing because they couldn’t bear to be alone, while others sought solitude and quiet nights at home reading, dreading the company of others.
The contestants’ experiences gibe with research on widowhood showing that there are many ways to cope, some more productive than others. In general, people tend to cope with distress in two ways. Problem-focused coping means finding a solution to the source of one’s suffering. This might involve volunteering or going out with friends, to fight the pain of loneliness. Emotion-focused coping, conversely, involves changing one’s emotional response to the situation. There’s no way to bring back one’s deceased spouse, but it is possible to squash negative feelings by recalling happy times with one’s spouse, or talking through one’s feelings with friends.
Dulling one’s emotions through drugs or alcohol is considered the least healthy way to cope.
Going on a national TV show and searching for love might not be a typical strategy for coping with loss, and it’s not available to everyone, but it does help Gerry and the 22 women in one important way: It gives them hope for the future. Even if they don’t find love on the show, they will all hopefully leave the series feeling that something new, exciting, and fulfilling lies ahead in the future. Optimism and the belief in new possibilities may be best gifts these older widows and widowers receive from their time in the spotlight.
Deborah Carr is a professor and chair of the sociology department at Boston University. She studies stress and health, and the ways our relationships can help (or hurt) us. Follow Deborah on Twitter @DeborahCarr723