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Love After Loss

Of all the ways Gail envisioned her life unfolding, she never imagined she’d be re-entering the dating scene at age 57.

After all, she had been married to Brent, her college sweetheart, for 32 years. They’d had a satisfying life together: they raised two great kids, supported each other through career ups and downs, and planned for a retirement full of travel, volunteering, and time with future grandchildren.

What more could a couple want? Apparently, Brent did want more. He stunned Gail one Friday night when he dropped the bomb: “You’ll always have a place in my heart, but we’re through. I’m leaving.” A few days later, he and his belongings were gone. And Gail was alone, really alone, for the first time in her life.

That was a year and a half ago—the worst 18 months of Gail’s life. “I was devastated,” she recalls. “When Brent walked out, my world came crashing in on me.” Thankfully, Gail had the wisdom and strength to summon her friends for support, seek therapy to process the pain, and draw upon her spiritual beliefs to forgive Brent and prepare to move on.

Which brings us to the present. A man named David at the architectural firm where Gail works has taken a fancy to her. For several months, David has “happened” to show up at the coffee room when she did, stopped by her cubicle to chat, and sent funny emails to brighten her day. Now, David has finally made his move—he’s asked Gail out for a date. Gail, of course, is panicked. Highly intrigued, but panicked.

What words of wisdom do you have for Gail? More to the point, what would you tell yourself if you were in Gail’s situation? Try these for starters:

Beware of the “rebound effect.” This point comes first because it is so common and so heartbreaking. Someone experiences loss—either through divorce, death, or abandonment—and he or she is left in tatters. Lonely, disoriented, grieving. Then another someone, probably a kind and respectable person, enters the picture and romance ensues. There’s a huge hole in one heart, maybe both, that yearns to be filled. The new couple hurtles forward with high hopes and good intentions. It’s likely they get married. But it isn’t long before cracks in the foundation begin to show, and one or both of them realize they’ve made a terrible mistake. Avoiding a rebound and its hurtful consequences begins by taking any budding relationship very slowly and deliberately. Each step should be carefully evaluated with both the head (rational thinking) and the heart (romantic possibilities).

Call for back-up. The biblical proverb says, “Without consultation, plans are frustrated, but with many counselors they succeed.” In other words, don’t go it alone. Seek input and advice from people whose judgment you trust. When you’re hurting after a loss, you’re vulnerable and susceptible to missteps. All of us have blind spots, and these are even more pronounced when our heart is raw and tender. That’s why you need a counselor—an actual therapist, a close friend, or a trusted family member. Be open-minded as you ask, “What should I be doing differently? How can I protect myself?” A wise counselor can save you from further heartache—or help nudge you on to a fabulous new relationship.

Guard your heart. You know, of course, that every romantic relationship carries risks. Your hopes may be dashed. The person you’re dating may not be what you expected. The spark of early dates may quickly fade. While you can’t install armor plating around your heart, you can take sensible precautions. Keep your expectations on a realistic level: no one is perfect, and every new relationship hits snags. Keep your options open until you’re sure–there’s no need to make a commitment to be “exclusive” with someone before you’re completely ready.

Muster your courage. Pat yourself on the back—pursuing love after loss isn’t for sissies. It’s so much easier to stay in your safe, comfortable routine, avoiding other singles who might take notice of you. After all, dating can trigger your most sensitive emotions—fear of being hurt, rejected, or humiliated. There’s nothing like dating to make your self-esteem soar like a rocket or sink like a rock, especially when you’re still feeling off-kilter. By playing it safe, you may avoid painful feelings, but you’ll also avoid meeting potential partners.

Most of all, if you are considering a return to love after loss, be kind and gentle with yourself. Give yourself permission to work through all the difficult emotions, so you’ll be ready when a wonderful person enters your life.