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Learning to date after losing a spouse

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: My father is 80 years old and lost his wife of 60 years about six months ago. He moved to a retirement community with lots of available women. The problem is that his first try at dating has backfired. He is distraught over what he perceives as a failure. I think he moved too fast, wanting to live with this woman after dating for only a few weeks. I would like to gently advise him without preaching. I might add, my mother did everything for him and was a full-time homemaker. Do you have any suggestions?

– M.C.

Dear M.C.:

Loneliness after losing a spouse is real. Your father may dread being alone and yearns not only for your mother, but for company.

The loss is great – as is the adjustment.

The knee-jerk reaction is to quickly find someone to ease the loneliness. His desire to fill the void may be clouding his judgment. And women have changed. Some are not eager to enter into a committed relationship as they discover a new sense of freedom, particularly if they have been caring for a sick spouse for many years.

Abel Keogh, author of “Marrying a Widower” (Ben Lomond Press, 2012) suggests some dating tips for widows and widowers that might be helpful in a conversation with your father.

Date for the right reason. It is not wrong to date for the company or to combat loneliness. However, dating to heal the pain or fill the void – well that just won’t happen.

Dating to have a new experience and being open to fall in love again – that’s more of a reality.
Guilt is a natural feeling – at first. Some report feeling like they are cheating and are embarrassed to run into friends with “the other” woman. The fear of what people are thinking about you and this new woman is not unusual. In fact, it’s normal. Over time, these fears typically subside.

It’s OK to talk about a deceased spouse. The issue is not to overdo it. It is not advisable to occupy the entire evening discussing your wife and how happy you were. Talking about the past may send a message to your date that you are not ready to move forward and start a new relationship. Show interest in your date, get to know her.

Don’t assume your date is a therapist. Dating is not a therapy session. Keogh suggests that if you find yourself constantly talking about the pain in your heart spend $60 or $100 an hour for professional help. That will be more useful than spending the same amount on dinner and a movie.

It’s OK to make mistakes – at first. It’s easy to forget some proper etiquette such as opening a car door or walking your date to her door. A widow mentioned to me that on a recent date, the man walked about 20 paces in front of her – and entered the restaurant with her in tow. She found it awkward to say the least.

Take things slow. This is an important piece of advice. Keogh notes that the death of a spouse means losing intimate physical contact. Missing this contact is normal. Often the lack of physical and emotional intimacy drives people to the dating scene.

The desire to want something that has been part of our lives can become a “ticking time bomb” according to Keogh. It can force relationships before we are ready for them. “The result: a lot of broken hearts and emotional baggage.”

Make sure you are dating the person because you genuinely like or love him or her, not because you miss the intimacy of your late spouse.

Make your date feel special. Be interested in your date. Don’t do all of the talking. This is a basic dating rule that is easily forgotten by widows and widowers. Your date should not have to compete with the ghost of your deceased spouse. Remember, listen and be interested – as well as interesting.

Given the growing number of widows and widowers, there are now Internet sites for this population. See Also, has a section on Relationships & Love with many useful tips.

M.C., your father is fortunate to have you as a caring daughter. Find the right moment and have the conversation.

Note, it may take some time for your father to “slow down” in the relationship department. Eventually it will happen.

Copyright 2011 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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