If there is one issue that can create division, and even anger, in a room full of widows and widowers, it’s the topic of dating after the loss of a spouse. Of all the subjects in all the groups that I’ve ever facilitated, this may be the most controversial.
For some, just the mention of dating again can cause such a negative and visceral reaction -I’ve seen grievers walk out of presentations where this topic was only one small part of the conversation.
But why the strong reaction? Does it a feel like a sense of betrayal to the deceased? Or of being rushed into something we’re not ready for? Is just the thought of having to start over, to put ourselves out there just too overwhelming or too exhausting? Is it that the endeavor seems worthless as there will simply never EVER be someone as perfect for us as the partner we lost?
And is it fair that a griever has to cope with this tremendous grief while also answering questions from family and friends about whether they plan to date again? Or is it fair that a griever may face judgement from those who think that they aren’t ready to date or believe they shouldn’t?
I’ve stated many times that grief is unique. Just as every person is unique, so is their reaction to the losses they face. And while I think on some level we all understand this, I don’t see it put into practice as much as this general agreement should indicate.
The fact is we all come from different backgrounds. Even within our own family, our experiences within that family can be so unique that we have a completely different set of morals, values, and coping mechanisms than our siblings. In the larger world, we need to think about where we were raised, what part religion played in our life, as well as so many other factors like money, education, etc. And believe it or not, just as all of these things absolutely become part of the fabric of who we are as a person, they also contribute in every way to who we are as a griever.
It’s important to remember this piece especially when we talk about dating after the loss of a spouse, as it can be all of these things that determine whether it may be right for us or not.
And maybe that’s a good place to start. What is right for us? It’s a question we rarely ask ourselves, perhaps because we recognize that we may not always find the answer. So instead we look to the opinions of those around us and seek validation in what they think is right for us.
It can mean feeling pressured in either direction when it comes to the “what next?” part of our grief. Because that’s a very important point to make here. This idea of dating after the loss of a spouse, for most, comes much further along in their grieving process. Not everyone! I don’t want to generalize, just for all those reasons stated already. But for a lot of people I have worked with, the thoughts of dating again come after the acute and early stages of grieving have softened and subsided a bit.
So in wanting to make this discussion inclusive to everyone, we’ll take a look at each side of this “debate” to help you figure out perhaps, where you fit.
Not interested in dating again – perhaps this should be broken down into the not interested in dating again EVER or the not interested in dating right now. But for the sake of this article I think we’ll put them in the same category as one of the better things a person or griever can do is stay in the present moment. So for right now this would apply to those who are not dating or interested in dating. If you’re being encouraged or even pushed by people around you, take a moment to think about how that makes you feel. Annoyed? Angry? Misunderstood? All of those things? Most grievers will say that when family or friends try to push them back into the dating pool before they’re ready, they feel that these people simply don’t understand them, or the depth of the love and grief they feel for their spouse who has died. So the issue here is not so much of a “should I or shouldn’t I venture out into the dating world?”, but rather, how do I communicate to those around me that I am not ready or may never be ready? My answer would be to tell them just that. Of course how you answer may also be determined by who is asking and how are they asking. Is it a beloved friend gently asking if you may be ready? Or a nosey neighbor who says they can’t believe you haven’t married again? Of course the reaction we feel in each situation could be very different but our response can be the same no matter who is asking or how they say it/ask it. Let these people in your life know that you love your spouse, that you are grieving your spouse, and that you simply are not ready, nor are you sure you will ever be ready to welcome another person into your life in that way.
And that’s it. There is nothing else to say, do, or prove. And most importantly try not to let the questions or statements get to you (easier said than done, I know). Remember that in most cases they come from a place of love and concern. People like to see their loved ones happy and they may feel that if you were happy when you were part of a couple, than the key to getting you happy again is to encourage you to become part of a couple again.
Grievers understand how much more complicated it is than that, but the person you’re speaking with may not. Believe that they have good intentions for you, thank them for their concern, and move on with what you know is right for you without letting anyone else’s influence shake the foundation that you are trying to rebuild.
Interested/looking/have begun dating again: so here we are on the other side of the equation with grievers who may feel that they are ready to start dating again. In a lot of ways there is even more to cover here, but I think it’s best to try and keep it simple. Let’s start with the questions every griever should consider before exploring a new relationship.
- Where am I in my grieving process? This isn’t easily answered, of course, but it is important to take some time and reflect on where you started and where you are now. Have you returned to work or your usual activities (volunteering, babysitting grandkids, etc)? Are you sleeping and eating better than you were in the early days? Have you begun reconnecting and socializing with friends and family? Are you mostly feeling comfortable both in public and home alone? Just remember (and this goes for anyone at any point in their life) we should only want to add someone to our life when we know we are strong enough to stand on our own.
- What do I hope to gain in meeting someone new? I think most people who have lost a spouse find that while in time they may be coping well enough, it is the loneliness that lingers long after their loved one is gone. Loneliness is practically an epidemic in our world today, and few people will feel this more acutely than the griever. If we’re looking to find someone new because we are lonely, that is understandable, and likely the most common reason a griever would look to date again. But before heading into a romantic relationship it may be important to think about the other ways that a person can combat loneliness- becoming more active in their community or church, volunteering or taking on a part time job. Joining clubs or taking classes. Spending more time with the people already in our life or finding places to make new friends. If you have tried these things or are already doing these things and feel that you still want to add someone new, it may signal a readiness to add a more intimate relationship to your life.
- How do my loved ones feel about me dating? Okay, so it’s going to seem counterintuitive to ask this after saying that we have to trust and figure out what we want for ourselves. Still, as we look at the “why?” as in “why do I want to look for someone new?” we want to be certain we’re not doing it because other people think we "should". And on the opposite end of the spectrum, if we feel that we’re ready to date and every single person we know is telling us we’re not, it may be worth taking a moment to listen to their reasons “why”.
So if after answering all of the above you have decided you may be open to the idea of pursuing a romantic relationship with someone new at some point, remember a few important things:
- Take it slow
- Be up front about your loss and where you are in your grief journey
- Recognize that while this loss is very much a part of who you are, it still is not the sum of your personality. Meaning when introducing yourself to someone new it’s important to focus on who you are besides who’ve you lost. What are your interests? Hobbies? What is your background? Where have you traveled? If asking your best friend, what would they say is your best characteristic or what do you have to offer?
- Remember that no single person can be the cure to our life’s problems. This new person has the potential to add great joy, satisifaction and fulfillment. But there is no one else in this world who is responsible for our happiness besides us. So while we may hope that some light and happiness can come from adding someone new, know that all of those feelings need to be originating from within us in the first place.
- Only the griever understands the experience of feeling lonely even in a room full of people. Know that meeting and dating is not always the cure for loneliness as being with the “wrong” person could make you feel lonelier than being alone. Instead of trying to find someone just like your spouse, open yourself up to the possibility of how someone different could actually enhance your life and add to your own personal growth, maybe in ways you hadn’t experienced before.
- Be sensitive to the feelings of those in your life who may also be effected by the loss of your spouse, specifically your children (young or grown). Know that they may have very strong feelings about you dating, and they are entitled to them. Create an open dialogue where you each get to share how you feel about the idea of you dating again and make sure to listen as well as to be heard. If they are strongly against it, know that doesn’t mean you can’t date, but maybe that you need to take it more slowly. Children don’t always understand the difference between the loss of a spouse vs. the loss of a parent and what effect it has on your day to day life (this would be true especially of adult children). So they may just need a little more time to understand. Be patient, but don’t waiver. You are allowed to want this.
In the end, regardless of what side of the “debate” you are on, know that this is a very personal and very difficult decision for any griever to make. Respect the individuality of this choice, and try not to judge yourself or others for whatever they decide. Know that even entertaining the idea of dating again can be a very healthy sign of where a person is in their grief journey. Know that it is possible to be committed and devoted to your late spouse while still wanting to grow and move forward and find happiness again. At the same time recognize that companionship and joy can come from many many places, and that a romantic relationship can be a very big step. It is not an easy answer, and like every relationship before, it will take work and devotion, and that may or may not be something you feel you have the energy for at this point in your life. Dating after the loss of a spouse may never feel right, and that is okay too.
Take it day by day, listen to your gut, and don’t be afraid to venture out. If the time is right, and the person is right, you’ll know. Just as you knew before.