It’s five years since Steve died. March 19, 2011 at 6:45p.m. But who’s counting? Even with five-plus years of anticipatory grieving, when the real thing comes along, you’re sideswiped.

Every year, at this time, I run the “last days of Steve” scenario in my head, over and over again. The three weeks leading to his death are still very much etched in my memory. The quick downward progression. The emergency room visits. The hospitalizations. No, the end was definitely not fun. It was an emotional roller coaster that still has me reeling to this day, which is why I’ve come to limit the days I revisit that time.

But, five years is definitely a milestone. I went from counting the days, to the weeks, to the months, to the years—it’s amazing that it’s come to that, since he’s so present in my thoughts and daily routine.

There is life after caregiving. I can attest to that. One month after he died, I went to open our summerhouse full of its memories—it was a great space to grieve, reminisce and heal. By the end of the season, I was ready to take on the mission of creating The Caregiver Space. As tinged with Steve, illness and melancholy as the task may have been, it was my way of reinventing myself and getting on with life. Something that began as a pipedream and a way of staying in touch with women who had been in my spousal care cancer support group, became instead a way of touching all caregivers in need of emotional support.

So, creating the website was my way out of the darkness and into the light—the website and Broadway theatre. I’ve never been one who had a problem doing things alone—restaurants, museums, movies and plays—and I hoped I’d begin to meet people doing things I like to do—to populate my new life with people who had common interests. Didn’t happen. But that was never the reason for going out. I relish cultural expeditions on my own. It was getting to be the time, however, for me to “fish or cut bait,” so to speak. I was, much to my surprise, ready to date.

blooming again after lossAfter Steve died, I didn’t waste any time when it came to posting my profile and photos on a few dating sites. In all honesty, it was good for a giggle. I ended up studying the phenomenon of, jdate and okcupid. I didn’t know who or what I was looking for, other than companionship and I was in no rush. So when the time came and I was ready to start dating for real, I had learned that a sixty-five year old widow wasn’t about to meet anyone on what turned out to be youth targeted dating sites. It was time to check out, geared to people over fifty.

Well, I had a few bites but nothing that intrigued me—so I started prospecting myself. It sort of felt like “Goldilocks”; this man was too short, that man lived too far away and eventually I found someone who was just right. Steve had let me know he wanted me to find someone to be with after he was gone—but he had his list of people I could not date. What’s really funny is that the first two people who were “suggested matches” for me in my daily notifications were on his list of candidates not to date. And I was going to respect his wishes.

My capacity for reading people paid off. I’ve been dating the first man I went out with—someone I found for myself—for almost two-and-a-half years. I DO know myself and have learned to set boundaries in my life. I’m not a kid anymore. I’ve learned to make my feelings known. After years of caregiving and what sometimes felt like bowing to my husband’s every whim, what “I” wanted was paramount; being direct, honest and caring has allowed me to be in a loving relationship where my limits and my person are respected.

In no way do I feel disloyal to Steve or his memory. My “boyfriend” (in quotes because it feels so silly saying girlfriend or boyfriend when we’re both over 65) lets me speak about my past. There are photos of Steve everywhere and that’s fine and how it should be.I was with Steve for over thirty-five years—he is still a big part of my life—and he still comes up in conversations with people who knew him. There’s no way I could be with someone who didn’t understand that.

Moving on doesn’t mean you have to leave your past behind you—sometimes I feel mine is like a friendly, cozy, favorite sweater I wear that keeps me safe and grounded. It’s made me who I am. Your past is part of who you are. It doesn’t go away. Carrying it around with you is unavoidable.

We move on in our own time, in our own ways. There is no cut-off date for grieving or feeling sad. There is no timetable for when to start dating. It’s all about doing what feels right and authentic to whoever you are. If you stay honest with yourself, you’ll know what to do when. It’s all about being an individual again vs. part of a unit. Find your new comfort zone—sometimes it’ll be just a little out of your old comfort zone. Be brave. Be happy.

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