This summer, the Spanish actress and presenter Paz Padilla, who lost her husband to cancer two years ago, was photographed with a man who seemed to be her new sentimental partner. There was a wave of criticism on social media, where some users said it was too early and suggested she perhaps never loved her husband all that much.
A few days ago, in an interview on the television program El Hormiguero, Padilla asked the following question: “How long do you have to wait to rebuild your life?”
A few decades ago, when the unwritten rules of mourning reigned over the lives of, above all, women, the answer was somewhat clearer. In Spain, this period could last anywhere between two and five years, during which time the widow was expected not only to wear black, but also to give up the pleasures of life. These customs are now a thing of the past, but something still remains in the collective imagination, as evidenced by the social media reaction to Padilla’s attempt to rebuild her love life.
Even now, it is not very common for Spanish widows or widowers to remarry. According to a 2011 study, only 4.3% of widowed women entered a new relationship, although it was more likely to happen among younger widows.
At 53, Paz Padilla falls within that category of young widows (the average age of widows in Spain is 77 years old) who are more open to new relationships. But among women over the age of 65, there is a generalized reluctance to find a new partner. Juan López Doblas, a sociologist at the University of Granada who has done a lot of research on older people who live alone, said that when the subject comes up, men and women react differently. “Women do not simply respond with a ‘no’. They respond with a ‘no, no, no, no, no’. The rejection is deep and widespread, and it doesn’t matter if they are 66 or 96.″
Their reasons are also different: among the older women there are more traditional arguments, such as not wanting to replace their husband or fear of what people will say. Among the 60-to-70-year-olds, there is more talk about not losing their freedom or not wanting to look after someone again.
A study published in 1996 in the Annals of Clinical Psychiatry painted a very different picture in the United States: 25 months after the death of their spouse, 61% of men and 19% of women were in a new romantic relationship. The sample was small and very specific, but the study also concluded that, in general, these people tended to show higher rates of emotional well-being.
So is two years the right answer?
“There is neither a manual for the perfect mourning period nor a perfect period for mourning. It is a highly individual process,” explains Valeria Moriconi, a psychologist and head of the Covid-19 Grief Support Service of the Madrid Official College of Psychology. “Clinically we could say that around one year is when the loss should be accepted and emotions should be less intense, but we know that it is a general criterion, it must be adapted to the person and their circumstances,” she says.
Another psychologist specializing in grief, Paloma Romero, agrees. “Grief is going to be conditioned by a person’s present and past, by the circumstances of death, by their strengths, weaknesses, fragilities… All this is going to shape that mourning in a unique way that does not look like anyone else’s,” she says. Deciding whether or not someone is ready for a new relationship based solely on time is meaningless.
Romero notes that, in the case of Paz Padilla and her husband Antonio Juan Vidal, who died in July 2020 of brain cancer, there was possibly also an early period of mourning. “People think that she has been grieving for two years because she has been a widow for two years. But grief, when we are talking about degenerative diseases with a poor prognosis such as cancer, often begins earlier. You see the person deteriorating progressively, there are small losses that happen in front of your eyes.” If you have been experiencing that anticipated mourning and are aware of it, perhaps that moment of rebuilding your life comes sooner. “Or maybe not, it’s very difficult to generalize.”
Both specialists speak of an emotional adaptation. “Grief is not a pathology, something that is cured or that you recover from, it is a process. And it is not linear, it is more like a roller coaster ride, in which there are ups and downs,” explains Romero. “At the beginning there is more pain than love and you go through life with the image of the person in front of you, it is difficult to see where you are going, it is difficult to move forward. When you integrate the mourning and see all these particular little things that this relationship gave you, what happens is that the proportion of pain and love tends to get inverted. There will always be pain, but above all there is the love of what that relationship has given you, and instead of being in front of you, it is next to you. It is something that does not block the way and is not incompatible with other things. Maybe there are those who want to rebuild their lives in terms of finding another partner and starting another family, or there are those who take up a new profession or do things that they were not been able to do before.”
Valeria Moriconi adds that the person who has suffered the loss must learn to live in this new reality. “One of the most difficult jobs is to rediscover their role within the day-to-day: tasks that were previously shared now have to be assumed alone, or shared with another person.”
In this very personal and unique process, social pressure usually plays a role. Besides those who are criticized for moving on too quickly, there are those who feel the opposite pressure: people telling them to move on already. “After a certain point, between six and eight months, it is common for patients to start receiving messages from their environment encouraging them to do things, and they may have problems managing this pressure,” explains Romero.
This can also cause some people to embark on a new relationship when they are not yet ready. “If I get into any type of relationship as a way to avoid what I am feeling due to my loss, that is a plug. And there are no airtight plugs. The danger of avoiding mourning is that sooner or later it will come back to me squarely in the face,” warns Moriconi.
On the other hand, rebuilding one’s life does not necessarily mean finding a new partner. Moriconi prefers the expression “to rejoin life” in a new stage that can take many forms. “Getting a new partner does not mean that the mourning period is over. It is not an index. It’s about opening up to the world again and having those roots of love with a person who has passed away.”