- By Jill Smolowe
I still remember how awkward and uncertain I felt on that first date after Joe’s death.
My husband of 24 years had been gone just four months and I was still in the gray fog of early grief. I also was lonely and in need of distraction not only from his death after battling leukemia but also from the failing health of my sister, who was battling stage 4 colon cancer.
I’d wandered anonymously onto Match.com to see how this cyberdating thing worked and struck up a boisterous phone relationship with a man who had a wickedly funny sense of humor. I was tantalized by his suggestion that we meet — and a bit horrified to think I could contemplate such a thing. In my head I apologized to Joe while I kept asking myself why I was doing this. The answer came back: survival.
I was clear that I was nowhere near ready to date seriously, let alone to partner. I simply wanted a pleasant evening out, something to look forward to, a reason to stand in front of the mirror and deliberate over which pair of jeans made my butt look best.
It is actually very common for people to mourn a loved one but at the same time wish to move on.
— George Bonanno
But would others regard my desire for diversion as an insult to Joe’s memory? The last thing I wanted was for his family and the many other people who loved him to confuse my need for a night out with my love for Joe. So, at age 54, I did something I hadn’t done in decades: I sought permission.
The Need for Permission
At the time I didn’t articulate it to myself that way. I thought I was simply looking for guidance. Now I understand how the need for “permission” is keen when we are considering a move that feels unfamiliar or uncharacteristic. No matter how old we get, there’s still that little kid in us who clings to the rules of the playground: Before you can take a giant step, you’ve got hear, “Yes, you may.”
First, I ran the Match.com idea by my sister. “Go for it,” she said. Then I called the younger of my two brothers. “I think it’s great that you’re trying to jumpstart your life,” he responded.
Still uneasy, I crafted an anonymous email to George Bonanno, a grief expert whose book, The Other Side of Sadness, had rearranged my thinking about the trajectory of grief. “This is uneasy for me to admit: I already feel an inclination to date. I’m wondering if this is unusual,” I wrote. “My sadness is with me all the time; but so is the desire to look toward a future.”
The response came back: “It is actually very common for people to mourn a loved one but at the same time wish to move on,” he graciously wrote to me. “I think we are wired to do that. The only problem seems to be when we worry too much that it is somehow not appropriate.”
Guilty as charged, but still I needed further permission. What finally tilted me toward the go-for-it side of the fence was an observation by my oldest and dearest friend. “You haven’t been grieving for just four months,” she said. “You’ve been grieving since the day Joe was diagnosed.” That felt exactly right.
One Date Was Enough
My date with Mr. Hilarity, however, did not feel exactly right. He wasn’t my type, whatever that was, and I quickly realized I wasn’t ready to date even though the prospect of spending the rest of my life alone frightened me (Who will talk to me? Who will listen to me? Who will care whether I come home at the end of the day?).
Still, that evening out served an important purpose. It quieted my anxiety and gave me hope that there would be a new life out there for me when I was ready.
Over the next two months, I raked and bagged leaves, turned Joe’s office into mine and attended yoga classes. Meanwhile, I continued to seek out permission from a wider circle of friends and family.
I ran the idea of dating by my then-15-year-old daughter. “You are so not ready to date,” she said. Then came a reprieve a few days later: “You can date, but I don’t want to wake up and discover someone in your bed.”
During lunch with a friend, I mentioned that I was thinking about dating. She relayed my words to a mutual friend, who shot me an e-mail: “Is it true you are ready to date??”
“I just want to get out,” I typed back. “Sitting home breeds dismal thoughts.”
Though my words suggested confidence, the exchange heightened my hesitation. Those double-barreled question marks reinforced my concern that I might unwittingly inflict pain on friends and family.
Yes, You May
A month later, at the December meeting of my writers group, we honored our year-end tradition of hoisting glasses of champagne and offering brief statements about our professional and personal goals for the year ahead. When it came my turn, I said I wanted to get back to writing. Polite applause.
On the personal side, I said, I wanted to start dating. That drew enthusiastic gasps. Yes! I heard in their enthusiastic affirmation. Go for it! Though they couldn’t have known it, and I didn’t realize it until years later, their generous, spontaneous response finally gave me the permission I needed. That New Year’s Day, I sat down and crafted a proper Match.com profile, photo and all.
Six years later, I am married to a man I met just weeks after posting that profile.
And I see with greater appreciation how fortunate I was to have family and friends who were eager to provide the permission I so keenly needed to propel my life forward.
For those of you out there who, like me, have had your hearts broken (a death, a divorce, a misfortunate choice of partner) and are hesitant to take that first tentative step toward the someday future you know you want, I extend to you the gift so many gave me: permission. Yes, you may.