What eightysomethings can teach people of all ages about finding love after a loss
I’m just back from a trip to Florida with my new love, Peter. We had a week of nice dinners and leisurely joys: looking at the ocean, talking, reading, and watching TV. Of course, it was an eightysomething-style holiday… slower and quieter than vacations at earlier ages. Peter used a wheelchair at the airport. I walked alone on the beach each morning because his walker doesn’t work on sand. And we took a lot of naps. Sometimes two a day. But we felt so lucky and so happy to be together.
When my husband, John, died in 2015 it seemed to me I would never feel right again. Everything felt different and grey. My beloved husband of 59 years was gone. I was alone.
A year later, Michael, an elementary school classmate got in touch with me and we went to lunch. I realized how lonely I had been and how glad I was for his company. But after a few months, I realized I didn’t really like spending time with him. He didn’t talk much, laugh much. He was no fix for my loneliness. So I stopped seeing him. At every age, some relationships just don’t work out and we need to employ our break up skills. (It wasn’t all that easy.)
As another year passed, my friend Peter, who was in my small support group, became my regular dinner companion. We spent more and more time together, gradually becoming a couple. Peter and I had lots to talk about. I felt safe. Looking back, I was ready for a new love. I’ll never stop missing John, but I let go of the acute grief and the numbness of the previous two years. I could let myself take the risk of loving.
I learned about loss, grieving, letting go, and loving again not only from my own experience but also much from the 128 people in their eighties that I interviewed for my book. By age 80, we have all experienced losses. Many of us have lost our spouse. All of us have lost friends. Some unlucky ones have lost a child. We’ve lost numerous pets. And we all know that to love again is risky. Several people told me they refused to get a new dog because the thought of losing another dog was just too painful.
To be ready to take the risk of new love, I’ve learned you need to have grieved your losses one by one. One woman I interviewed told me that whenever a friend died she ‘d take what she called a ‘private retreat’ for an hour or so. She’d full remember her friend, feel her sadness and think about attributes of her friend that she would try to incorporate into her own life going forward.. Grieving is, of course, an individual matter. There is no set timetable — it can take months or many years. But when the time is right, and you’ve grieved enough, for now anyway, you'll let go. And return to life and love.
Mary Oliver wrote about this process in her poem In Blackwater Woods:
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.
Once we have passed the acute grieving stage we will probably be ready to love again, to give fully—and it doesn’t have to be romantic love. Get a new pet, make a new close friend, spend more time with a grandchild, or find a new companion or partner. Experience, once again, the pleasure of loving. Know again that the greatest pleasure in life is loving another. It is not being loved by someone else. Many of us don’t learn this truth until late in life.
In case you’re wondering, most eightysomethings usually don’t marry their new romantic loves. Way too complicated by children, finances, property, and health issues. And we relax as we see that new loves do not take the place of earlier loves. They are not in competition for the same space. Peter and I keep separate apartments though we spend much time together. We have lots of photos of our spouses and children on our walls and we both wear our wedding rings. But for now, we are here for each other, and we are grateful.
Love is essential at every stage of life. As humans, we’re adaptable and creative in where and how we find new love. Even in the direst of experiences, we can love. It is like the surprising flower that valiantly emerges from a pile of rocks. We can all, at every age learn to grieve, let go, and love again.
Happy Valentine’s Day!