I stood before a group of 30-40 widows and widowers in a brightly-lit Toronto hotel conference room, my PowerPoint presentation on a large screen behind me, not exactly the atmosphere you might choose to talk about post-loss dating. This was my first-ever dating workshop, and I was filling in for the woman who normally conducts the dating workshops at Camp Widow. I wasn't sure how it would be possible encapsulate my own 10 or so years of dating after my husband Arron's death, but several weeks of thinking about it helped me narrow my focus. I applied my mantra of "what would I have wanted to know?" as I started out in the dating world.
I wound up coming up with four stages of post-loss dating:
This is where the numbness of grief has begun to dissipate and we begin to get out into the world again. Perhaps we can't begin to imagine a day when we might ever be ready to date again, but we find ourselves curious about it. We hone our hearing to perk up at any conversation having to do with dating, we might "just browse" an online dating site, watch movies about relationships or dating and we begin to notice people not wearing wedding rings. Often, this stage ends with our very first date.
2. "Wild Thang"
Perhaps now there have been several dates with one person and you realize you can no longer buy your underwear at Safeway. You crave being touched. You long for intimacy. Going through this stage was disconcerting for me, as I felt like I was going crazy. I thought about sex all the time. One boyfriend gave me my first vibrator and it began to get a lot of use. I didn't know who this new me was, but I hoped it was normal. What I eventually concluded was that most people have a wild stage after the loss of a long and/or meaningful relationship. As it turns out, sex is a pretty good salve for grief. I described this in more detail in this post I wrote a while ago.
3. Settling In
Eventually, perhaps after a few short-term relationships, you begin to want more from a relationship than just sex. You begin to realize that all those people you dated were not your loved one, and you might even begin to realize that you were just a little bit guilty of trying to find your lost partner in a new mate. You take a step back, relish some alone time and begin to enjoy other aspects of your life. You might date, but you are no longer willing to say, "Oh, what the hell, life is short," in order to justify the relationship.
4. Putting Away the Photos
Once you have reached the "Setting In" stage, you begin to realize that you want more from a relationship: something real, something meaningful. You are no longer holding onto the past and have, in a variety of ways, mentally "divorced" yourself from your loved one. This can sometimes take a long time. It took me 10 years or so. For me, it culminated in a feng shui exercise of putting away many of the photos of my dead husband, creating a home where two people would be comfortable (particularly in the bedroom -- two nightstands, comfortable bedding, cleared closet space) as a way of psychologically inviting someone into my life. When you find yourself able to do these things, you are mentally ready to invite a new person into your life.
Of course, life doesn't always work in a nice, tidy pattern like this. You may fumble your way through these stages in a great relationship, they may all happen at once or in a different order. These aren't rules, but simply a way I found of explaining my progression through dating.
Of course, there was much more to my talk, and I saw heads nod, people smile, I saw sadness and resignation. I hoped I saved some people from the fear of dating, gave others hope that they would some day be ready to date, helped people to realize they were not going crazy, that dating and relationships are messy business, but worth working towards.
Having never done this particular workshop before, I wasn't sure if I would go over my allotted time, so of course I finished early and asked if anyone had questions. One woman asked about my own dating experience, if I had had success in the dating world.
I smiled and glanced at Jim, who was sitting in the audience next to Selena, Arron's mother, which was altogether a bizarre way to conduct a dating workshop where you mention the word "vibrator" several times. I pointed him out as "Exhibit A" and he blushed. It was an amazing moment, realizing a person in your life could actually embrace all of you, your past, your flaws, your successes and become "Exhibit A" with grace.
Perhaps this is the fifth stage of dating.