Charles Thunnell Sr. and Patricia Cadwallader look at each other with that special smile and affection that only exists between couples in love. But just like shy teen-agers, they don’t proclaim love for each other. All they admit to is they have a great time together. Sometimes they act like high schoolers, giggling and blushing about each other’s affection.
Mr. Thunnell of Fairfax is 84, and Mrs. Cadwallader of Arlington is 74.
They have both worked, raised children and been married. They have also experienced life-threatening health problems such as cancer and have each lost a spouse.
But you wouldn’t know they spend or have spent any time in the land of emotional or physical pain. They’re a great testament to the fact that grief can be overcome and companionship, even love, achieved late in life.
“I am all for laughs and dance,” says Mr. Thunnell, a man who despite constant arthritic pain, smiles at the end of every sentence. “I have always worked hard, now I play hard.”
The profound grief Mr. Thunnell experienced immediately after losing his wife of 57 years, Kathleen, about five years ago, has been exchanged for a new appetite for life, meeting new people, traveling to places and trying new foods.
Grief has its place, too, he says. After spending a couple of months of unsuccessfully trying to find his footing in a world without his best friend and companion, he went to the Widowed Persons Service in Vienna for help.
“I was just sitting at home, and I was getting crippled up because I wasn’t moving. I needed to do something,” Mr. Thunnell says.
The Widowed Persons Service, a national program with local branches sponsored by AARP, has support groups and one-on-one outreach programs in which longtime widows and widowers give advice to the newly widowed.
For Mr. Thunnell, it was the first step into a social scene that now involves dozens of friends and acquaintances in the same marital situation and memberships in at least 10 fitness clubs (he takes water aerobics every day of the week), travel, music and religious clubs.
Mr. Thunnell and Mrs. Cadwallader are among millions of widowed seniors in the United States. In the older population, 65 years and older, about 8 million women and 2 million men are widowed, according to AARP.
Mrs. Cadwallader lost her husband, Columba, 18 years ago. He had a massive heart attack during the blizzard of 1983. She spent months grieving and praying, and it took her almost 10 years to want to start dating again.
“I didn’t know where to go because no one was widowed like me. I was only about 55,” she says.
Mrs. Cadwallader made it a point to be as active as possible. She took flower arrangement and stained-glass classes to prevent loneliness from slipping into her life.
“You have to stay busy. If you do, you won’t feel sorry for yourself,” she says. “If you can get through the holidays that first year, it makes a big difference. After that, you have been there and done that.”
Getting beyond grief
But it is expressed differently in each culture. In some cultures, such as the Muslim, the expression of grief can be very public, while among some American Indian tribes public expression of grief is uncommon, Dr. Rabins says.
Among other Americans, grief is something very personal and each individual finds his way of dealing with it. But beyond three to six months, it can be unhealthy to continue to grieve, he says.
After that the grief becomes more intermittent, sometimes evoked by a certain scent or sound.
“By a year, the majority of people are not experiencing many of those episodes anymore,” Dr. Rabins says.
If people continue to grieve beyond six months to a year and the grief interferes with their normal activities, such as preventing them from sleeping, they may need counseling or medication, he says.
The next phase after pronounced grief for the survivor might be loneliness. After a lifelong companionship, the survivor must reorient himself to a new reality. Many of his friends are probably couples with whom the survivor and his late spouse socialized.
“Many people fear loneliness,” Dr. Rabins says. “And isolation and loneliness are often the triggers for people to resocialize and make new contacts.”
Some find resocializing easy. Mr. Thunnell took two months to get involved in clubs. Mrs. Cadwallader, however, took almost a decade to return to dating. What might have prolonged Mrs. Cadwallader’s grief is that the death of her husband was unexpected, Dr. Rabins says.
Everyone has to find his own way when resocializing, says Pearl Isenberg, coordinator for the Montgomery County Widowed Persons Service.
“You’re like a teen-ager again, but the dating game is a little different this time around,” says Mrs. Isenberg, a widow of 29 years. “Some people try it and discover it is not for them.”
Friends and family are often more important than having a girlfriend of boyfriend, or remarrying again, she says. But many people in the District, Northern Virginia and Southern Maryland moved to the area later in life and don’t have that support network. That is where groups such as the Widowed Persons Service or the Merrymakers can make a difference.
“The biology is that we are all built to grieve, and we are all built to adapt,” Dr. Rabins says. “Where we are different is how we adapt and what people choose to do to adapt. Some people decide they don’t want a new relationship. But there are many people for whom new relationships is a real positive.”
The Merrymakers group meets and performs every week. Each of the group’s 40 members get a birthday celebration complete with a card and a cake.
“It’s a good deal. Sometimes we have cake every week,” says Helen Mulroney, 82, of Falls Church. She founded the Merrymakers in the early 1970s.
‘We just want to have fun’
The group also travels together and it was on one of these trips, on a cruise in the Mediterranean, that Mrs. Cadwallader and Mr. Thunnell first started “bothering with each other.”
“He was in the room next to ours, and we just started going to dinner together,” Mrs. Cadwallader says. “He’s always laughing and always having fun.”
Now they call each other every day, and go on dates at least three times a week. They both say they are not the jealous type and do not take offense if the other person wants to dance with someone else when they go out to community get-togethers.
“We have no strings on each other. We just want to have fun,” Mrs. Cadwallader says.
Recently, the two went on a seven-day cruise to Bermuda, trading their fall clothes for pastel-colored summer attire and straw hats. They participated in dances on deck and Mr. Thunnell even performed a dance routine, dressed in a torn up T-shirt, to “I’m too Sexy,” an early 1990s song by Right Said Fred.
“They wiggled their rear ends. One had a cane, one had a limp and then there was Charlie. It was very funny,” says Mrs. Cadwallader through bursts of laughter.
Even now, after about two years of dating, the two don’t spend the night together. Sitting on her couch in her four-bedroom Arlington home, the brown-eyed, reddish-blonde Mrs. Cadwallader, who grew up Irish Catholic, says its against her religion to have intimate relations outside marriage.
Blue-eyed Mr. Thunnell, whose father was a liberal Swede, says he respects Mrs. Cadwallader’s decision. Mr. Thunnell, who lives with one of his sons and his daughter-in-law in a Fairfax condo, doesn’t want to get married again.
“I got down on my knees once, but I am not doing it again,” Mr. Thunnell says.
To which Mrs. Cadwallader responds, “You probably wouldn’t get up again.”
The bantering between the two is ongoing and a reason the couple always attract attention wherever they go. On their Bermuda cruise, a couple of ladies asked if they could sit down at their table because Mrs. Cadwallader and Mr. Thunnell were having so much fun.
They say the key to happiness in old age, or maybe at any age, is not taking life so seriously and being able to laugh at yourself from time to time.
Even at a cemetery, it seems.
Mrs. Cadwallader’s late husband and Mr. Thunnell’s late wife are, by coincidence, buried close to each other at Fairfax Memorial Park.
During a visit to the graves, Mrs. Cadwallader and Mr. Thunnell noticed there were other similarities, too.
“We even had the same gravestone set up for us,” Mrs. Cadwallader says and cannot help but giggle at even this morbid detail.
Not missing a beat, Mr. Thunnell adds, “Well, they’re going to have to wait awhile for me.”