The dating scene is difficult for most to navigate, but widows and widowers have even more hurdles facing them. They have to allow themselves enough time and space to grieve, avoid comparing love interests with their late spouses, release guilt when embarking on serious new relationships, overcome disapproval from family and friends, and ultimately embrace the right to love and express feelings for two people: the deceased spouse and the romantic relationship.
The challenge is compounded for those in their 20s and 30s. Although widowhood is considered an attendant condition of being elderly, about 55,600 people age 34 and younger were widowed in 2009 alone, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
"There's a saying in the widowed community that the person I am isn't the person that my late spouse knew," says Peter Thomas, 31, of Long Island, N.Y., whose wife, Claire, died in 2008. When you're ready to date, he says, it may mean a different sort of person could be a better fit. Some widows and widowers, however, "put their spouse on a pedestal," Thomas says, which begs comparison and doesn't bode well for new relationships.
About a year after her husband died, Shannon Bell, 31, of Kendallville, Ind., says she jumped too quickly into the dating pool. "I (dated) for the worst reason: I was lonely. I quickly fell into a relationship with someone who was not right for me in the least, but he was someone with a heartbeat."
Lesson learned, Bell spent time "finding what I was made of on my own." A year and a half later, she's in a healthy relationship, expressing her grief freely and taking it slowly.
Though key to any relationship, finding a compassionate partner is essential for the recently widowed.
"It's very important that the person (you're dating) is supportive of you and your process," says Michele Neff Hernandez, executive director of Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation in Simi Valley, Calif. "One widower was told by a woman that he was a perfect man, but 'unfortunately you're totally undateable. No good woman wants to be second.'"
Young widows and widowers are often branded in one way or another, she adds. It's important, during and after the grieving process, not to accept others' misguided notions.
Equally important, says Carole Brody Fleet, author of "Widows Wear Stilettos: A Practical and Emotional Guide for the Young Widow" (New Horizon Press) and herself a widow, is letting go of dating guilt. "Many young (widows and widowers) feel that once they have lost their spouse, they have caught their limit and are not entitled to love again or simply enjoy companionship." That's often compounded, she says, by friends and family who offer criticism instead of support.
Widower Matt Logelin, 34, who lives in Los Angeles with his daughter, Madeline, encourages young widows and widowers to be true to themselves. Logelin runs a foundation in his late wife's name and discusses his life and its challenges on his blog (mattlogelin.com).
"We spend so much time worrying about what other people are going to think and how it affects them," Logelin says, "we lose sight of who we are and what our happiness needs to be. Do what's right for you and your family."
Here are four sites with advice on dating and peer relationships for the widowed:
Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation (sslf.org)
Our House Grief Support Center (ourhouse-grief.org)
Widows Wear Stilettos (widowswearstilettos.com)
American Widow Project for military widows (americanwidowproject.org)