Articles: Life Reorganization

Love Lost and Found

‘After my husband died, I never thought that I could love again.’

There were tears in her eyes as Maureen spoke of the relationship she had shared for almost 39 years with her beloved Tom. His death at only 61 years after a short illness had meant the loss of a very special relationship, but also the loss of many of the hopes and dreams they had shared for a happy retirement and the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of their labors together. Maureen dreaded those lonely night and weekends when she missed Tom’s companionship the most.

Then she met George. It wasn’t that she was looking to meet anyone. But they had been co-participants in a grief support programme, and had enjoyed talking with each other in the group. They then attended our “Among Friends” programme, and over the course of many months, began to look forward to sharing with each other at the dinners and social events.

But Maureen firmly resisted the idea that they would ever have a “relationship” or that this nice little friendship would ever “go anywhere”.

It is one of the practical issues of bereavement aftercare that everyone has an opinion about, but no real idea of what is appropriate or right. People never think they’d HAVE to date again, but here they are, living life after the death of a partner. While no-one wants to be alone forever, most have a hard time believing they’ll be able to get past the loss and love again.

Some wonder if even contemplating such a thing is dishonoring to the memory of the deceased. After all, it never crossed their mind that there would ever be anyone else in their life, far less (dare we say it?) in their bed. Yet despite the complex emotions that surround starting over, it is possible to learn to love again.

Nonetheless, there are several common problems newly widowed people face:

Problem: Bringing closure to the former relationship.

When a person dies, we continue to think of them as being “in the present.” Because we are unwilling to “let them go” we hold on to them, by imagining they are still there, talking to them, letting them know how your day has been, or asking them about problems you face. This behavior serves a healing purpose. The goal is to change the relationship we have with the deceased from one of presence to one of memory. They are no longer in the present, even though they are, and always will be a part of your past.

Solution:   This explains why we are often reluctant to get involved in new relationships. If the person was present we wouldn’t consider a new relationship. Because we still WANT them in the present, we feel guilty about pursuing or contemplating a new relationship. It is when we are able to think about the person and the relationship as being in the PAST that we are emotionally free to pursue another relationship into the future.

Problem: Rushing into dating.

Some newly-single people don’t like being alone, so they rush into relationships before they are clear on what they want and need. We want to “replace” the person who is gone. The problem is that person cannot be replaced. No matter who or what fills the void created by that person’s absence, it will never be the same. The underlying issue is that we like to love and be loved, and the person’s death takes both these away. The problem is that even if we date someone else at this point, we discover that they are NOT the person we really want to love and be loved by, and then the difficulties begin. I believe I have to find MYSELF before I am ready to find someone else.

Solution: Look within yourself. Focus on ‘ME’ for a bit before considering ‘WE’ again. When we’re comfortable with ourselves and who and what we are, we’re then again ready for the big bad dating world. In practical terms, spend time alone, spend time with friends. Do not date until you’re comfortable with yourself. Don’t force yourself to date just because friends and family nag you to get back out there.

Problem: Pressuring yourself and your date.

Culturally, a successful relationship is one that ends with marriage or a commitment of some sort. But that can create a lot of pressure to succeed, which can cause you to fail. Not every date can lead to a long-term relationship. Friendships can be a wonderful thing, whether it leads to something permanent or not, and can actually become a strong foundation for something more lasting.

Solution: Cut yourself, and your date, some slack. Enjoy the other person and enjoy who you are with the other person. If you don’t end up with that person, what new things did your time together bring to your life? What facet of yourself was discovered? What new future did you anticipate that you never had before? You can use unsuccessful dates to help refine your viewpoint of what you definitely want to find in future dates, too.

Problem: Trying to recreate what you had.

Often, as humans, we want what is familiar. To love again means you will be loved differently, and you will actually love differently. To compare two loves is like comparing two cities or countries. Although there may be some similarities, there will always be something amazingly different.

Solution: Write a closing chapter about your past relationship. Write down what happened, how you felt, and what you learned. Then write a hopeful chapter of what a new love could bring to your life. Again, talk to friends so that they can tell you if you’re doing comparison-shopping versus taking a fresh and open look at the possibilities for future love.

Here are a few rules for those dating a widow or widower to consider:

Be patient: You might be an “accomplished dater”, but your companion probably isn’t. Many have not dated in years and have no idea how to even approach the process. Things have changed in the last 40 – 50 years! There may also be a lingering sense of ‘cheating’ that must be worked through. Unless you are recently single, your dating skills should include the ability to be still and let this new person move toward you.”

Inquire early: Speak of the former spouse early on in the dating game. It’s best to be forthright and to simply say, ‘Tell me about your wife/husband. How long ago were you widowed? How long were you married?’ One lady says: “My date’s asking about my husband made it easier for me. I didn’t feel like it was something I had to bring up on my own, or avoid out of consideration for my date’s feelings.

Walk in your date’s shoes: Spend some time thinking about how you would feel and want to be treated if you were in your date’s position. What if you predecease the love of your life? Do you want loneliness to follow your spouse to his or her grave, or do you want to have the love you had for each other move forward? Wouldn’t you hope that the new love would be fond of your memory?

Be self-assured: As the potential new love interest, your sense of self needs to be centered enough to allow your date to deal with putting a past love in perspective. Then your date can discover where you might fit in with his or her future. When you encourage and validate the love your date has felt, chances are good that the same ability to love will move forward towards you. If you need immediate assurances, move on.” One gentleman says: “Losing my wife kept me on an emotional roller coaster for over a year. The woman I was dating was secure enough to help me manage those feelings without being threatened by them.”

Watch for red flags: If your new love interest constantly talks about the former spouse, this is not a positive sign. It often means they still consider the relationship “in the present” which will not bode well for your relationship. If after a few months of dating, the deceased partner’s clothes are still in the closet or his or her voice is still on the message machine, or pictures are by the bedside, it’s a sign that your date is not ready to move on.

The goal is to start fresh together without comparing the deceased spouse to the new love interest. Moving on is hard. But we should honour the good memories and lessons from your previous relationship—and move past what was difficult. Then you can start putting your past in perspective and begin thinking about the next exciting chapter in your life. 

We were all thrilled to attend the wedding of George and Maureen, and we stood with them to toast the triumph of hope over experience.