How to Find a Social Life After the Death of a Spouse

The benefits—and pleasures—of building your social connections when the time is right.

By Sally Stich

For the first year after her husband Mort died of cancer, Mary Childs, now 68, looked mainly to her two sisters and her quilting friends for comfort and a social connection.”I couldn’t do much more than that," says the Lakewood, CO, retired nurse. ”On the one occasion that I attended a couples’ function with friends from our past, I was totally uncomfortable.” Indeed, many people who lose a spouse often feel like when it comes to socializing, it's a couples' world.

About a year after Mort’s death, Mary felt ready to start taking baby steps to move on and meet new people. “Mort had been a hunter and had promised to teach me how to shoot,“ she says, “but we never got around to it.” When a shooting range opened near her home, Mary decided to learn what she had missed with husband. “I met so many wonderful people at target practice,“ she says, “and I even started entering competitions around the country with many of the people I met locally.” 

Now, four years after losing her husband, Mary’s confidence and sense of empowerment has grown, as has her social life. “I met a man on SeniorsMeet and we have been together for a while now,“ she says. “Neither of us wants to live together or get married, but it’s great having male companionship again.”

Why move on socially?

Lots of people who lose their husband or wife feel like it's easier to be alone and not deal with the anxiety and other pressures associated with being social. But humans are wired to be social creatures. Our well-being is based largely on interactions with others. (The amount and kind of interaction varies, but the need is inherent.) To avoid connections is to invite depression. Not surprisingly, a study at Michigan State University discovered that people 65 and older who used the Internet to stay in touch with friends had a more than 30 percent reduction rate of depression symptoms. In other words, no matter the age, people need people. In person, on the phone, via the Internet, whatever.

How do you know when it’s time to move on?  

There’s no magic answer to this question. For those who maintained a social life based on interests and not just couples’ friends, the journey is a bit easier. Likewise for those whose partner’s death was not unexpected. Four years ago, Barbra Cook, now 62, lost her husband of 36 years after his 10-year-battle with early onset Alzheimer's. “Several of our couples’ friends drifted away during Morris’ illness,” she says, “but I was determined to both sustain and build a life for myself after he died.” During his illness, she continued dancing, a lifelong passion she and Morris never shared. Today, she enjoys both salsa and tango.

For others, the journey may start a year or more after the loss. According to Doreen Horan, LCPC, at the Counseling Center at Stella Maris, a provider of longterm care in Maryland, on average a man starts socializing within one to two years of a wife’s death. For women, the average wait is two to five years.  What all grief counselors agree on is that at some point, every widow and widower needs to get out there if life is to be meaningful once again.

How do you start?   

Planning your re-entry to a new social life is not done overnight, says Erlene Rokowsky, Psy.D., a psychologist at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology. She suggests these steps before you take action:

  1. Take an inventory of who’s already in your circle of friends. Who do you want to keep? Whose presence is more toxic than comforting?
  2. On a frequency continuum from every day to a few times a month, what is your need for human interaction?
  3. On a relationship continuum from intimate to communal, what level of connection do you need? (The introvert may be more comfortable at a book club than one-on-one. The extrovert may need a variety of relationships.)
  4. Assess what need your spouse filled and what you now miss. Was he/she your confidante, your movie partner, your source of laughter? Do you have a friend who can fill that need?
  5. Revisit these steps periodically to figure out what you want to add (a companion of the opposite sex?) or take away.

Ready, set go! 

When you’re ready to rebuild your life, says Kim Gordon, the bereavement coordinator at Hospice of Westchester in New York, here are good ideas for meeting new people:

  • Join a health club and take a class. Besides getting more buff, you’ll meet other people who like the same exercise as you.
  • Take your dog to obedience class. Nothing like other crazy-in-love-with-my-dog people to bring strangers together.
  • Throw a party. We’re not talking intimate get-together, but a Super Bowl or election party that doesn’t rely on twosomes for success.
  • Buy two tickets to an event and invite someone to go with you as your guest.
  • Volunteer. Hospitals, schools, and libraries often need volunteers. (FYI: Many cities have citizen police academies that offer behind the scenes insight into police work and offer volunteer positions to attendees. Talk about meeting a wide variety of people!)
  • Find someone to teach you a new skill. Relationships are built over common interests. Besides, it’s flattering for the one being asked to teach.

Starting to date

Not everyone over 55 is interested in dating, but if you are, New Yorker Hal Spielman, 91, a widower and former market researcher who owns SuddenlySolo.org, offers these insights:

  • Find a compatible person by connecting with someone you knew in the past. (Think high school and college reunions, Facebook, friends in common who can get you together.)
  • Look at online dating sites for people over 55. Aside from SuddenlySolo.com and SeniorMeet.com, there's also OurTime.com and SeniorPeopleMeet.com.
  • Banish the notion that all older men are looking for younger women. “Our research shows that most men prefer their own age group,” says Spielman.
  • Understand the 5-3 gap. “Men tend to assume intimacy after the third date,” says Spielman. “Women assume intimacy after five dates.” Understanding that  allows a woman not to bolt if sexual attention comes too soon but she really likes the guy otherwise. The key: open communication.
  • Listen, listen, listen. Larry Lynn, 70, a now-remarried widower and blogger on AfterTalk.com learned a lot about wooing women from listening to his first wife’s single girlfriends. “They all complained about how their dates only talked about themselves,” this former VP of development at a major New York hospital recalls. “I learned to ask good questions about their families (which tells a lot about their relationships in general) and then shut up and listen to the answers.”
  • Switch from “We” to “I”. Once you are single, says Child, you need to stop constantly using “we” (you and your now deceased spouse) when talking about yourself. “Otherwise, you look like you haven’t really moved on,” she says.
  • And finally…Rebuilding your social life after loss is not about reinventing yourself. “It’s about personal growth," says Child. “You still are who you were—only now, you can choose, without any outside influence, how you want to live in order to be your best and happiest self.”

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