Dating After The Loss Of A Loved One

Consoling a friend who’s grieving the loss of a long-term love is challenging. Here are some expert tips on how to be supportive without pushing too hard — including helping your friend back into dating again.

By Kent Miller

ou’re a great friend — very supportive and caring — and now, your friendship is needed more than ever. Someone you care about has lost a spouse (or long-time romantic partner). You’re wondering: How can I help? And in the back of your mind, you’re also thinking: How can I help this wonderful person find a new relationship? Here
It’s not always easy to gauge how a person is really coping.
are some of the things to consider as you try to be a good friend to someone who’s grieving the loss of a romantic partner.

Don’t rush things
“Just be there and listen. Be patient if your friend needs to talk and needs to cry. Don’t give the impression that he or she needs to get over it,” says Susan Kavaler-Adler, a Manhattan-based psychoanalyst and author of Mourning, Spirituality and Psychic Change, who has counseled people in mourning for more than 35 years. “Offer specific support,” advises Ann Rosen Spector, a Philadelphia clinical psychologist and columnist with more than 35 years of experience helping people with the grieving process. “Not just, ‘What can I do for you?’ but ‘I’m going to the store. Let me get you what’s on your list’ or ‘Here’s dinner for one night this week.’”

Everyone copes differently
Of course you want your friend to embrace a happy, new life. But how do you know when that person will be ready for romance? “The responsible, clinical answer to any question like that is, ‘It all depends,’” observes Henry Seiden, a Forest Hills, NY-based psychoanalyst who has worked extensively with people in dealing with grief. It’s not always easy to gauge how a person is really coping. Your friend may be constantly weeping, or may appear to be cool and collected on the outside, like Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking (a memoir she wrote about the year she lost her husband, John Gregory Dunne), but who in reality felt like she was going crazy inside.

Was the loss expected or sudden?
When a death is expected, family and friends can prepare themselves. “There may be grief mixed with relief that the person is no longer suffering, but it’s still a loss. With a sudden loss (accident, murder, suicide), there’s the shock of unexpectedness,” says Spector. To be sure, putting one’s life back together is never easy. Even though Monica Bentley, 57, an Internet marketer in Bridgewater, MA, took care of her husband for the last year of his life, she admits, “I was not prepared for how lonely life would be after it all ended.”

Understanding the grieving process
Just about everyone has heard about the “stages of grief” which were formulated some 40 years ago by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, followed by anger, bargaining and depression, culminating with acceptance. Experts now view grief as a much more complicated process. “It is unlikely that all people move through the stages in a certain, invariant order. People move back and forth and experience many of the ‘stages’ simultaneously,” offers Spector. For example, a person who was in a stormy, unstable relationship may spend a lot of time feeling angry toward the partner who passed
She knew that my life had to go on, and she gave me permission.
away. Also, psychologists tend to shy away from generalizations about the ways men and women handle grief. “I see more differences among men and among women than between men and women,” says Kavaler-Adler.

Determining one’s individual timeline
There is “no exact timetable on when to date again,” says Spector. “Some of it is up to when the individual is ready and how much he or she feels bound by external rules, as well as internalized ‘shoulds.’” According to Seiden, a person is ready to love again when he or she can “embrace the impossibility of duplicating a relationship that one once had. One can’t expect one’s new husband or wife to fill the place of a dead spouse. It would have to be a brand-new relationship.”

For Allison Ellis, 40, a children’s marketing consultant in Seattle, WA, dating helped her take care of herself. In the months after her husband, then 39, died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2003, Ellis was busy with memorial services, getting her household in order, caring for their infant daughter and finding full-time employment. When she began dating, “I realized it was a distraction, but it helped me take my mind off everything else in my life,” says Ellis.

Baby steps back into the dating pool
As with all singles, part of the dating process is finding a comfortable way to meet potential dates. “I joined a motorcycle club figuring I’d find camaraderie there, but was shunned as a single woman in a mostly couples-only environment,” says Bentley. “I went to many a meeting where no one even said hello. Finding out about was a godsend, because now, I can meet people on my own terms.” Ellis speaks fondly of her love-life mentor — a childhood friend who gave good advice on building a profile and learning how to date again: “The best thing she told me was, ‘Don’t kiss anyone until you’re on the fourth or fifth date. Get to know someone first.’”

A happy past can lead to a loving future
Although it may sound counterintuitive, “Good relationships are easier to recover from,” Seiden says. Peter Demarest, 57, a business consultant from Glen Mills, PA, knows exactly how this feels. Before his first wife passed away from breast cancer in 2004, “She knew that my life had to go on, and she gave me permission — no, a directive — to make sure that my best days were still ahead of me. I’ve been blessed a second time in love and have been remarried now for four years.”

If your friend has already been in a wonderful, supportive relationship, he or she possesses something extraordinary; that is, knowing what a loving relationship looks like and, most importantly, what it feels like. And that knowledge is a tremendous treasure that your friend will have forever, even if new love isn’t quite yet ready to bloom.

Kent Miller is currently writing a comic young adult novel. His articles have appeared in Nintendo Power magazine, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The San Francisco Chronicle and The St. Petersburg Times (Florida).
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