How Soon is Too Soon to Date Following the Death of a Spouse? 0

dating after loss of a loved one

In our Your Stories series, people who have lost a loved one share their unique perspective through essays, poetry and artwork. This week, Jessica Marcellus takes on the tricky issue of when to start dating after the death of a partner.


Two years ago, at Christmas time, I sat on the couch beside my husband Dan, the room aglow with the soft reds and greens of twinkling lights woven around a freshly cut balsam fir. Notes of Christmas carols drifted into the room from a staticky old radio in the kitchen, the volume dialed low; the room was otherwise quiet.

Using the firm, protruding surface of my nine months pregnant belly, I folded a tiny mountain of freshly laundered infant clothing. I held each cotton onesie, each fuzzy sleeper over my abdomen, marvelling that the kicking, squirming little stranger inside me would be wearing these clothes in just a few short weeks.

After a while, Dan spoke, breaking what had been a sustained, evening-long silence between us.

“What do you think you’ll do with your rings?” he asked. “After I… you know.” He didn’t elaborate further. But I did know. After he died.

Dan had brain cancer. He had been diagnosed with the horrific, inoperable tumor just two months earlier. And now, here we were, trying to wrap our heads around the fact that he likely wouldn’t live to celebrate our child’s first birthday. All this at a time when most parents-to-be were worrying over whether to paint the nursery Chambray Blue or Cape Cod Gray.

“What do you think you’ll do with your rings?” he asked. “After I… you know.” He didn’t elaborate further. But I did know. After he died.

I bowed my head, glancing down at the diamond ring on my left hand, its princess-cut stone glinting prettily in the multicolored glow cast by the tree lights. I studied the platinum setting, then each tiny inlaid stone of the matching wedding band, the prolonged scrutiny an attempt to hide the heat that had sprung to my cheeks, the water in my eyes.

Aware that several minutes had gone by, I finally looked up to meet his gaze. There were tears in his eyes, too.

“I couldn’t imagine taking them off,” I admitted, truthfully. He nodded. Paused.

“Well, I’d hope you would get married again someday.” He said it matter-of-factly, but the magnitude of his words hung in the air between us, palpable.

“Me, too, honey.”

To this day, I consider myself lucky, in a sense, that Dan vocalised his wish for me to find someone else after he was gone. Some people, especially those who lose their partners suddenly or unexpectedly, aren’t granted the luxury of this formal approval. Others still never have a conversation such as ours due to the discomfort it could induce.

But regardless, I suppose, of a deceased partner’s thoughts or wishes on the subject, the topic of finding love again will inevitably cross the minds of most, if not all surviving halves at some point. The question, then, becomes: how soon after loss is it appropriate to begin dating?

The simple answer is, of course, that there isn’t one. Or, what every information-seeker wants to hear: it depends. But really, it does. So many factors are at play in deciding when to reenter what can be a simultaneously ominous and exciting dating scene.

Was your partner’s death sudden, or expected? Did it happen as a result of a long illness? Did you have children together? Would you like to have more someday? Do you feel well supported in your grief? Are you ready to risk more heartbreak, after already experiencing an unimaginable one?

In my case, the first six months after Dan died were spent focusing solely on raising my infant son and figuring out how the hell to survive on my own. I had no energy, no space in my soul, for anything other than those two tasks.

I was 26 years old when I became a widow. I knew I wanted to love someone again; wanted to have more children; wanted our son to have a father figure in his life someday.

So, I spent a month visiting my sister in Florida. I studied books on grieving, read novels, memoirs. I learned to use the zero-turn lawnmower — bumped along the uneven ground of our 2.5 acres on late-summer evenings with a baby monitor balanced between my knees.

I adjusted, mostly, to the quiet of the house at night after putting Sawyer to bed; to the absence of Dan’s State Police cruiser from its usual spot in the driveway; to the empty space in our bedroom closet and in our king-sized bed. Little by little, I learned to live with each of these unfamiliar, undesired vacancies, facing them anew each day until, gradually, they became less glaring.  

Beneath the thickest fog of grief, though — even in those first few months — existed an embryonic desire to fill in those hollow spaces created by Dan’s absence. I was 26 years old when I became a widow. I knew I wanted to love someone again; wanted to have more children; wanted our son to have a father figure in his life someday.

Nothing truly prepares you for losing the person you thought you’d spend your life with.

I’d also already experienced a good deal of what is so neatly termed “anticipatory grief” — that which occurs before an impending loss. In the nine months between Dan’s diagnosis and his death, I’d done my absolute best to prepare for a future without him. I’d forced myself to visualize the inevitable decline in health, the physical act of dying, the utter heartbreak and loneliness I would feel once he was actually gone. I’d also imagined — painfully, reluctantly, hopefully — the possibility of happiness with someone else.

Anticipatory grief, admittedly, only gets you so far. The reality is a thousand times worse than anything you could have imagined. Nothing truly prepares you for losing the person you thought you’d spend your life with. And so I’d needed those first six months desperately, to debrief, decompress, pull myself together.

But I do believe that the “preparation” I’d done — forcing myself to feel the emotions of losing Dan in advance, to sit with them, to accept them — contributed to my resilience, and ultimately, to an acknowledgement of my wish to move forward.

Have you thought about when you’ll start dating again?

And so, around that six month mark, a few things happened. First, I resumed the practice of going to the gym, a hobby I’d foregone throughout the course of Dan’s illness. Working out helped me feel strong again, physically and emotionally. And working out alongside an occasional fit, attractive stranger — well, there’s not much explanation needed there.

Second — and for this, I’ll forever be grateful — a few friends brought up the subject of me dating again, and in doing so, made my desire to date feel acceptable.

I can attribute one conversation, in particular, to giving me that nod of approval I’d unknowingly sought after. I was chatting one morning at the gym with a casual friend, who also happened to be the wife of one of Dan’s former coworkers. Known for her directness (a quality of hers which I had always admired), she wasted no time in getting to the point.

“So, there’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you,” she broached. “I think other people have been wondering this too, but have been afraid to bring up the subject — have you thought about when you’ll start dating again?”

“Uhh,” I stumbled over my response, caught off guard by the question. “I haven’t really thought about it much, no,” I answered hesitantly, the fear of judgment apparent even from this woman who clearly had no intention of judging me. She nodded, didn’t probe further.

“If I were in your position,” she offered instead, matter-of-factly, “I think I would wait six months to a year. After that, I feel like I’d want to move on with my life, like I’d be missing out otherwise.”

I didn’t say so then, but those few words were exactly what I needed to hear. Both validating and approving, her sentiment made my desire to love again feel reasonable, practical even. I’d just needed someone to tell me that it was okay.

Despite feeling mostly ready and even a little excited to begin this new chapter, I did still worry what others would think.

A few weeks later, after a rare second glass of wine one evening, I created a Tinder profile. I told no one. I spent a few days swiping through strangers before finally deciding I would meet one of them for coffee. It was only then that I sheepishly confided in a good friend that I would be going on a date. Despite feeling mostly ready and even a little excited to begin this new chapter, I did still worry what others would think.

But in the end, my desire for partnership, for companionship, for laughter, for intimacy — for another chance at the future I’d once envisioned with Dan — was simply greater than my fear of reproval from those around me.

So I went on that coffee date, and I continued dating, for the first time in my adult life. At first, only those closest to me knew of these adventures. I didn’t mention my dating life in casual conversation. I didn’t post about it on social media. It would take more time, and ultimately meeting a man worth mentioning, before I felt ready for the world to know I had “moved on.” But when I did feel ready, I was surprised to find I encountered very little judgement at all.

As I now approach the two-year mark of widowhood, I have no regrets about the way in which I went about dating after Dan, or the timeline I followed. But I’ve also learned that if one certainty about widowhood exists, it’s that everyone’s grief is different. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to tackling it. It is not linear; follows no timeline; has no end. My journey is my own.

Others facing similar circumstances may need more time — or less — before wanting to move forward. To that end, the “right” amount of time, I think, to wait before seeking out new love is however long it takes to begin feeling ready to stop surviving and start living again.

And for those, like me, who need someone to give them the go-ahead? I’ll gladly be that person.  


Jessica Marcellus is a NICU nurse and writer living in Fairfax, Vermont. You can find out more about how Jessica and two-year-old Sawyer are getting on by following her Instagram account, @Jess.Marcellus.

 

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Laura’s Story: Meditation & Healing from Grief 1

In our Your Stories series, people who have lost a loved one share their unique perspective through essays, poetry and artwork. In this thoughtful piece, Laura Siegel describes how meditation helped her heal after the loss of her husband.

My husband died three years ago, shortly after his 74th birthday. We were together for 57 years. About a year before he died, a social worker recommended a meditation app called Insight Timer and the guided meditations seemed to help him immensely. So, the day he died, I began practicing them too.

The biggest challenge I faced was the ability to focus. My mind was in a constant state of fear and anxiety and thoughts wandered every which way. My heart hurt all the time.

My rabbi recommended that I try grief meditations. These were easier for me to follow. The one that helped the most was Guided Meditation for Grief, Anxiety, and Stress by Heather Stang. Her gentle voice is so soothing, and there’s lots of space in the meditation for silence. Other meditation teachers I’ve enjoyed on Insight Timer are Meg James, Tara Brach, Kristin Neff, and Lisa Machac. Pretty soon, I was meditating five times a day and getting much-needed relief.

After my husband died, the silence of his absence was devastating.

 

After my husband died, the silence of his absence was devastating. Sure, there were friends, movies, and TV, but for the most part there was this great void of human sound and closeness. Listening to guided meditations has helped to fill this void.

Along the same lines, listening to audiobooks also helped. I was no longer able to focus on reading: my grieving brain could not process the words. But I have always loved audiobooks, and I soon realized that they were becoming my companions as well. Simply listening to a vital living voice helped me through my grief and I did not feel as isolated and alone.

I found audiobooks by other widows and widowers to be extremely helpful. We all share the same struggle. Here are a few that have particularly moved me:

  • A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates
  • Unremarried Widow by Artis Henderson
  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
  • A Widows Walk: A Memoir of 9/11 by Marian Fontana
  • The Widower’s Notebook: A Memoir by Jonathan Santlofer
  • A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis

I also joined several online widow and widower groups via Facebook, Hope for Widows and Hot Young Widow’s Club (you don’t have to be young or hot). Speaking to the other widows was like having a circle of nurturing support surrounding me. We are even able to laugh with each other – another important component of healing from grief.

Meditation is giving me a foundation for living a calmer, more peaceful life.

I begin each day with a 30-45-minute guided meditation (three years ago I started with shorter ones). I don’t even get out of bed. This is the easiest time for me to follow my breath and nurture myself. I do the same in the late afternoon. Right before bed, I listen to a five-minute guided meditation and then fall asleep to soothing music. My favourites are Gentle Morning by Weston Brown and Devotion by Mary Maddux.

There are other ways that I meditate, like taking walks in nature and swimming. When I am swimming it’s impossible to feel anxious or worried. I am simply moving with my breath.

I am beginning to feel the same way when I do guided meditations. My breath is guiding me. It’s as if there is nothing to fear, nothing to worry about. This is carrying over into my daily life. Things that have caused me stress before no longer have the same power. A sense of calm and contentment that I have never known before sweeps through me. I can also rest more easily. I can more easily accept my difficult feelings. I am less angry. I appreciate silence more. I can be happy with what I have.

Meditation has changed me very gradually. In the beginning I could not follow my breath without a million thoughts encroaching. And yet I’ve learned that it is the nature of the mind to think. Meditation does not mean that you stop thinking. It means that you notice thinking and return to your breath. Meditation is about learning to stay with what is.

Meditation is giving me a foundation for living a calmer, more peaceful life. Meditation gives me a way to take care of myself in every moment.


 

Laura Siegel is a writer supporting other bereaved partners through her blog, Breathing Into Healing.  She is also the co-editor of the anthology Out of the Closet, Into Our Hearts: Celebrating Our Gay Family Members.

If you liked this piece, we’d like to invite you to donate to the Leukaemia and Lymphoma Society in memory of Laura’s husband Howard. You can pledge a donation here.

And for more information about meditating for grief, you can check out our beginner’s guide to bereavement meditation with Heather Stang here.

A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation for Grief 0

When you first lose someone you love, grief can feel like an unstoppable force. Even after the raw ache of it fades, the odd trigger – an anniversary, an uncanny resemblance – can bring it surging back into your life years later, painful memories in tow.

Everyone who grieves copes with this in their own way. But one technique we hear about a lot is meditation: learning to focus the mind, so that stress is eased, and distressing thoughts are placed into perspective.

So, how does meditation for grief work, and where do you start? We caught up with Heather Stang, author of Mindfulness & Grief and the host of the Mindfulness & Grief podcast, to put together these essential tips for beginners…

1. Start with some self-care

“In my opinion, the first thing to manage in the early days of grief is the physical body,” Heather explains. “Without good sleep, nutrition and hydration, it is hard for our brain to function.”

So, try to get back into good habits by sticking to a routine: three meals a day, plenty of water, an early night. Look after yourself. As you do, you can start introducing a few simple meditation exercises to help you get the rest you need:

“Focusing meditation practices send a signal to our body that we are safe, switching off the stress response that prevents us from sleeping,” Heather says. “You simply choose one thing to focus on, place 100% of your attention as best as you can, and practice, practice, practice.”

Want to try? Start by breathing in deep, and then breathing out slowly, repeating a word over and over each time you exhale. Begin again each time you forget.

It’s more important to practice a little each day than binge-meditate one or two days a week!

2. Work your way up to the harder stuff

“Start small,” Heather recommends. “Ideally, you want to practice for 10-20 minutes a day, but I have many clients who say that just a few minutes of practice can improve their mood. It’s more important to practice a little each day than binge-meditate one or two days a week!”

Guided meditations for grief are a good start, with apps like Insight Timer, Calm and Headspace taking you through soothing exercises. You can find free videos online as well: Heather’s site hosts a relaxation meditation for grief, anxiety and stress, while YouTube is a veritable treasure trove of guided meditations on all sorts of themes.

Having a community can also help, Heather explains. “Whether you join an online meditation for grief group, or start attending classes at your local meditation center, connecting with others like yourself will kick-start your practice and help you stay on track and overcome practice pitfalls.”

3. Find the right technique for the right moment

Different types of meditation can help with grief in different ways, Heather tells us. The key is to know which technique to use when:

  • Focusing practices, such as mantra-based meditations, or counting from one to ten and back down again, can help steady a ruminating mind and calm anxiety. These are particularly useful for helping us get the sleep that can be so evasive when we’re grieving.
  • Mindfulness practice, which is paying attention to the present moment and what you can see, hear, smell and feel with a sense of openness, can help us “understand what’s real, without all the stories that our mind makes up,” Heather says. “It can also help us appreciate what we still have, tapping into our inner wisdom and knowledge.”
  • Compassion meditation, which uses visualisations and mantras to encourage us to feel more kindly towards ourselves and others, can help us feel more connected – and, says Heather, even reduce feelings of loneliness.

As you practice different grief meditation scripts and techniques, you’ll also find that some work for you better than others. Pay attention to the way you feel before and after a session and mentally bookmark the methods that really transform your outlook.

When you meditate, you have a skill that helps you decide how you want to be with your thoughts.

4. Remember, anyone can meditate for grief

Forget your preconceptions: you don’t have to have a New Age-y interest in incense and candles to meditate, or even a naturally calm demeanor. As Heather explains, anyone can do it:

“Many people think they ‘can’t’ meditate because they have an active mind. But the reality is that no one has a calm mind without practice – and even if you do meditate you will still have thoughts. The difference is that when you meditate, you have a skill that helps you decide how you want to be with your thoughts. And it is a skill: you can learn it, it just takes practice.”

That said, Heather recommends that people with post-traumatic stress disorder, intrusive images or other hallucinations talk to a mental health professional before meditating. You may also want to seek out a trauma-sensitive meditation teacher or yoga therapist. “This does not mean meditation won’t work for you – it might – but it needs to be approached with care and modified in a way that cultivates safety,” she warns.

Just remember that there are no good or bad meditators. There are just people that meditate and people that don’t.

5. Don’t be hard on yourself

It’s not always easy to meditate. Sometimes, you’re just busy, or tired, or your thoughts are too loud to settle down properly, and you struggle to focus. This is natural. According to Heather, the most important habit to get into when you’re using meditation for grief or healing is self-compassion:

“Rather than trying to be perfect, just be kind to the person you have the most control over – you.” She says. “You’ll forget to practice one day, two days, a month. Your mind will wander off a million times during a 5-minute practice. Self-compassion means that instead of judging yourself or giving up, you just begin again when you remember.”

When you stop pressuring yourself to be perfect, you’ll find that it’s easier to pick yourself back up and try again.

“Just remember that there are no good or bad meditators,” Heather advises us. “There are just people that meditate and people that don’t.”


 

Heather Stang is the author of Mindfulness & Grief and the host of the Mindfulness & Grief podcast. She runs online meditation for grief groups and leads programs around the US for grief professionals and bereaved people alike. Heather also holds a Masters in Thanatology (death, dying & bereavement) and is a certified yoga therapist.

You can find out more about Heather and her approach on her website here, and you can buy Mindfulness & Grief from Amazon here.

 


 

If you’d like to find out more about meditation and grief, it’s well worth taking a look at Laura Siegel’s powerful story, Meditation and Healing After Grief. In it, Laura describes how meditation and mindfulness helped after the devastating loss of her husband.