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Originally published Sunday, June 20, 2010 at 7:04 PM

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After death of spouse, grief makes its own rules

Widows accounted for 42 percent of the population 65 and older in 2008

Sacramento Bee

When her husband died four years ago, Marlene Dunaway entered a unique yet universal territory of grief, just as countless widows and widowers have before her. For many months, just getting through the days seemed to require an act of bravery, as well as help from a hospice bereavement support group.

Yet there is grace and immeasurable courage in the act of starting over after the loss of a lifetime love, and that's what she's doing: moving forward and encouraging other people to move forward, by helping create a support group on reinvesting in relationships.

"In talking to my friends, I discovered they were also thinking about these issues," said Dunaway, 72, who lives in Davis, Calif. "Do I want to be alone the rest of my life? Do I want a companion? Do I want to date or have a male friend? Do I even want to go there?

Why not?

A growing number of people are asking themselves that question. Among people 65 and older, widows accounted for 42 percent of the population in 2008, according to the U.S. Administration on Aging — and widowers accounted for 14 percent.

The demographic is huge and soaring: The Social Security Administration estimates that each year, 1 million Americans lose their spouses, joining the 11 million older adults who already walk that territory. And the American Community Survey indicates that more than 1.5 million of the nation's older widows and widowers live in California.

Some wouldn't dream of launching into another long-term relationship, much less marrying again.

At 80, Chris Robinson, a longtime officer of the Widowed Persons Association of California's Sacramento chapter, has been a widow for a decade.

"Many of us choose to remain single," she said. "I was widowed three times. They all died. Don't you think that's enough?"

The death of a spouse redefines life in the most profound way possible. In a world of couples, sudden and unwanted singleness can seem isolating and lonely. Learning to be alone — and to enjoy being alone — can be an enormous hurdle for widows and widowers. And learning to reach out again can be the biggest hurdle of all.

"We pigeonhole people all the time," said Joe Lumello, bereavement services manager at Yolo Hospice in California. "We tell them, 'You have this amount of time to grieve.' It's our job here to debunk that. Nothing breaks my heart more than when somebody says, 'It's been six months now. I should be over it'."

Rule No. 1 of successful re-entry from widowhood: There are no rules.

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"It takes as long as it takes,"said Denise Rose, the Yolo Hospice bereavement counselor who helps run Dunaway's new support group for people who've decided it's time to explore new experiences and relationships.

"We can't control grieving. It will control us."

Marlene Dunaway's kitchen cabinets are covered with family photos. More photos are carefully inserted into the big albums and scrapbooks she's assembled through the years — an entire bookcase of happy memories.

Ray Dunaway was 82 when he died in July 2006 of Alzheimer's disease. He was an accountant and an inventor, a devoted family man who slowly faded from Marlene.

"After the initial loss and grieving, you're very busy," she said. "I was involved with family and different activities and travel. You can distract yourself very easily, so you don't really reflect on how you want to create meaning in your life.

"I realized I was actually a widow. I'd been so much a wife. My roles were disappearing. I wasn't a daughter any more. I wasn't a wife. I was a widow, which was a label I didn't want. You realize you have to figure out another way of doing things."

She would be a catch — a warm, chatty, reflective woman who ziplined across a mountain in Mexico a few months into her widowhood because she wanted a new adventure.

"It made me think, 'Hey, I can do things,'" she said. "I find you can get so much support from people if you just feel life is a friendly place. I have that philosophy. We're being supported all the time by each other, whether we know it or not."

Anita Creamer at acreamer@sacbee.com

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