The XX Factor

There Is Life After Death for Vicki Kennedy

What lies ahead for Vicki Kennedy? She’s 55 years old and a widow. She’s spent the past 17 years married to a man 22 years her senior. For over a year, she’s been dealing with his slow death from brain cancer. So her recent lifestyle has been that of a woman older than her age.

And now it’s over. Where does she go from here? Now that he’s buried, does she admit, after all, that she would be interested in taking her deceased husband’s Senate seat? It wouldn’t be terribly surprising if she did. By all accounts she has been closely involved in her husband’s political life and is popular with his staff. Her poise over the past week has had a somewhat senatorial bearing to it. She’d be in fine company if she decides to go down that path. Washington has a long history of well-known congressional widows-Lindy Boggs and Mary Bono are two who immediately spring to mind, but there have been several others.

In fact, there have been so many that the L.A. Times once did the math and figured out that succeeding a dead husband was a woman’s surest road to congressional electoral victory. Of all the 95 women who went to Capitol Hill through 1976, 35 were widows. And of first-time House candidates from 1916 to 1993, 84 percent of the widows won, while only 14 percent of other women were victorious.

So if Mrs. Kennedy decides to go to Washington, let’s assume that she can.

But she might not. There is no archetypal response to widowhood just as there is no archetypal widow. Yet roughly 700,000 women in the United States lose their husbands each year, and half the women over the age of 65 in this country are widows, according to the Census Bureau.

Today, widows are everywhere. Check any social website-Facebook, Meetup, Google or Yahoo groups-and you’ll find the bereaved, collecting to share their stories of grief and offer support. Within the statistics, categories of widows are springing up. Yes, there have already been a number of congressional-not to mention Kennedy-widows, but there are also well-known groups of widows in Florida, widows in stilettos, widows in red hats. There are widows under and over 50, widows of celebrities or prominent men, widows of veterans or of terrorist attacks. There are literary widows (like Joan Didion or Joyce Brothers) who go onto write bestselling books about their experience. This past July, there was even a widow’s conference in San Diego.

At this particular moment (by which I mean the days, weeks, and months that immediately follow the time of her husband’s death), Mrs. Kennedy’s future stretches out in front of her. At the same time her immediate past has become frozen, crystallized, and perhaps idealized by grief. For now, she’ll have practical matters to deal with. There’s bureaucracy to be waded through, forms to fill in, letters to answer, and clothes to pack up. Undoubtedly she’ll be busy, but she’ll be very sad, and quite lonely. It’s hard to imagine that in years to come, she’ll only remember little snippets from this time. For although this is the end of a chapter in her life, it’s also a beginning. Women do laugh again, they often love again and they certainly keep on living. Vicki Kennedy may or may not go to Washington. She may or may not marry again. But she has a life ahead of her and it has just begun.

If you are a widow, are related to or know one, we’d like to hear from you. What is the experience like? Tell us about how things change. What’s hard? What gives you hope? How you are transformed by the experience? What advice would you give Mrs. Kennedy? Share the details of saying goodbye to an old life and love and adjusting to the new. Tell us your story. E-mail me at , and just put “widow” in the subject line.

Photograph of Ted and Vicki Kennedy by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images.