At some point after bereavement, whether it is six months or six years, almost every widow(er) begins to turn their mind to the prospect of trying to date once more. However inconceivable it may seem in the early days of loss, when our love for our dead partner is more intense even than it ever was before, and when the mere thought of any kind of intimacy with somebody else is enough to provoke revulsion, a different perspective emerges with time. Sheer loneliness, the knowledge that life is vastly more fulfilling with a wonderful partner, the basic human need to give and receive love, even 'widows fire', its flames fanned by the inconvenient fact that sexual desire does not die with our partner, cause us, sooner or later, to realise that we have to open ourselves up to the prospect of a new relationship.
It had taken me more than 20 years to find Louise. I always knew that I had the attributes to make a good husband, but not being blessed with the looks or self confidence to often be considered a candidate for the necessary preliminary role of boyfriend in the first place I always struggled with dating. I remain to this day puzzled by the often expressed notion that 'these things happen when you aren't looking'. Not for me they don't. So on and off for two long and lonely decades I forced myself to endure the agony, humiliation and serial rejection of internet dating and its lower tech forerunners in an effort to find what I wanted more than anything else; somebody special to love and be loved by.
I was eventually rewarded a thousand times over for my persistence. I could never quite believe my luck at meeting Louise, a woman who, far from her anxiety induced self doubt at the end, gave me everything that I had ever dreamed of from a relationship - and much more that I had never even dared to hope for besides. She was, without question, the best thing that ever happened to me.
So maybe it was inevitable that from the very earliest days I held on to hope that eventually I would find love again, and be able to experience something just as good as the life that I had so enjoyed, albeit briefly, with Louise.
It was, perhaps, easier for me to think in these terms than many others. Unlike most who have been widowed suddenly I had explicit permission, in Louise's farewell letter, to go on to meet somebody else. I took it, in fact, almost to be an instruction. If in taking her life Louise had believed that she was allowing me to find happiness with another woman, failure to do so would somehow make things seem even more senseless and wasteful, her hopes for me disappointed. And whereas many in-law families find the thought of their son or daughter, brother or sister being 'replaced' too difficult to contemplate, it has always been made clear to me that if I were to find love again it would be with the blessing of Louise's family. I also do not have to consider any potentially similar resistance to a new partner from children.
Nevertheless, it's become apparent that attempting to date after being widowed is even more complicated and emotionally fraught than it is before. Despite that permission from Louise there was initially great guilt at the thought of being with somebody else, as if it would be a betrayal. If I still love Louise, and know that I always will, how could I let somebody else into my life? It took much soul searching to come to the conclusion that love is infinite, that there is no limit to the capacity of the human heart. Just as a parent can love two children equally so I am capable of loving another woman without diminishing my feelings for Louise.
But therein lies an immediate problem. Louise will come with me into any other relationship. For the widowed this is entirely logical. Our situation means that we have no option but to develop a sophisticated appreciation of the complexities and nuances of love and marriage, one which goes beyond the simple 'one heart - one love' formula which the non-widowed have the luxury of being able to hold on to. We know that there is no contradiction in honouring and loving a new partner while continuing to honour and love our lost partner, indeed nor in considering ourselves married to both simultaneously (even if the problem of how, ultimately, we might have to balance both partners when we are all together in heaven remains a puzzle). We know, too, that the mere fact of meeting somebody else will not of itself end our grief and sadness. It will simply grow the rest of our lives and enhance our happiness around it.
We also believe, with some logic, that our widowed status should stand as something of a recommendation to potential partners; we have proved that we can commit to and sustain loving relationships, we have probably reflected deeply on the meaning and value of those relationships and are likely to be prepared to work harder than most to build another. My next partner will receive not just my love for her but also all my love for Louise which now has nowhere else to go.
But the reality is that most people who find themselves single in their 30's and 40's are in that situation because of a fundamentally different experience to our own - a loss of love. When you have been widowed your emotional connection with your wife or husband is (usually) intact. How many will be jealous of that love we still hold, that perhaps we still openly display in the wearing of our wedding ring, despite the rather obvious fact that our partner can't possibly try to resume surreptitious email contact or turn up on the doorstep with an axe? How many will be empathetic enough to understand our different starting points and respect our needs? How many on dating sites will simply complain that we haven't 'moved on', write us off as having too much 'baggage' and swipe through to the next dating profile?
Some might say that I'm worrying unnecessarily, that having 'widowed' next to your relationship status is not an obstacle to meeting somebody. My experience so far would suggest otherwise. I'm now back on the same online dating site where Louise and I met and the contrast with when I was last there is stark. The positive responses have completely dried up. I am older than I was before, its true, but then so are those I am contacting. It seems in order to succeed in attracting interest I must try to hide who I am. Many do, choosing to identify themselves as 'single' rather than 'widowed' but I'm not sure that I could. If somebody isn't prepared to accept me as I am then they aren't the right person for me in any case.
Somehow the whole dating game is more difficult to deal with this time round. I deeply resent having to do it. I was once a much loved husband, but now I'm grubbing around for virtual 'likes' and 'winks' from strangers, desperately hoping for a reply to a message which never comes. It's difficult to raise any interest in the profiles on the screen in front of me. No doubt they are of lovely people but I don't know them and the flat, generic two dimensional descriptions couldn't possibly convey their characters in the way that I knew Louise as a rounded whole person. I can't even fully relate to their outlook on the world any longer. How is it possible for somebody 'not to take life too seriously'?
The confidence sapping rejections, having messages completely ignored or, worse, on the rare occasions when dates are arranged, being stood up, hurt much more now. I almost feel more sad for Louise than myself. It seems to disrespect her, and her love for me, as much as it disrespects me. I don't deserve, at the age of 48, when almost everybody else around me is settled in relationships, to be spending Sundays sitting in coffee shops waiting in vain for somebody not fit to be spoken of in the same breath as Louise to bother to turn up.
And if they do turn up, and we manage to navigate the inevitable early reference to suicide (rarely a good first date topic of conversation) then we start from scratch. I am no longer a teenager. I worked hard over a long period of time to reach the point with Louise where we felt like a proper couple who knew and understood each other intimately. It's exhausting to think that I would now need to begin all over again. Not just getting to know my new partner but also their family and friends, and to adjust to a whole new way of life lived to different rhythms, probably in a different place and with different people. Nothing better illustrates the fact that I have been pushed from the top of the hill all the way back down to the very bottom once more. What I really want is the impossible - a fully formed relationship from the very start, enabling us to dispense with the dating and the process of getting to know each other.
And who is the person I want to know? Is she different from the one I sought before? Perhaps not in the essentials. Ironically Louise herself would undoubtedly have been one of those rare people capable of instinctively understanding how to respect the needs of a widower in a new relationship.
But she will certainly have to be somebody very special indeed. To settle for anything less in my loneliness and vulnerability would be a betrayal not only of myself but also of Louise's hopes for me. It is desperately hard to conceive of anybody matching Louise so I have the toughest of tasks in finding them, but have to maintain hope that somebody equally remarkable is out there somewhere.
I also tend to imagine that she might be a widow - not just somebody who will instinctively understand but also one who can bring a 4th person into the relationship to improve the balance, both dead partners openly acknowledged and celebrated. I visualise one day living in a household with three sets of wedding photos on the walls.
And she is likely to be a little younger than myself. This isn't pure shallowness. Partly it is borne out of fear that I might one day find myself widowed once more if I was to meet somebody older. Mostly, though, it is because I have lost track of my age and the passage of time. I last shared my bed with a 40 year old woman. We mixed mostly with her friends of a similar age. When she died we were in the middle of a year of 40th birthday celebrations. It was just about possible to still hold on to an idea of relative youthfulness. I tended to forget that I was six years older than Louise. I also tend to forget that another two years have gone by since that last night together. The realisation that I might now reasonably be matched with somebody in their fifties is difficult to come to terms with, as if 10 years of my own life have been snatched away from me.
If the process of finding new love is so painful, the challenges so great and my needs so difficult to meet, why put myself through it all? Although the thought of one day finding another relationship was helpful to hold on to in the early days, I am now exposed to the obvious drawback of constructing my hope for a new life around something outside of my control. I might have been less disappointed with my progress, felt less stuck as I approach my third year of widowhood, if I had focused on some other more achievable building blocks such as my career, home or hobbies.
The answer is simple. Nothing in life is more precious or rewarding than a mature, knowing, understanding and committed relationship, genuinely a union of two people. One where the pronoun 'us' carries real meaning, where it signifies a living organism in its own right. I knew this before I met Louise and I know it now even more than ever. If I had been in any doubt then the one occasion since Louise died when there was just a glimmer of an embryonic closeness with another woman would have put me right. To once more feel the first stirrings of tenderness and care for another person provided a distant echo of how good this life once was and a reminder that it can still be good again.
I am scared, it is true, that I might once more have to search for 20 years, that I will be a pensioner by the time I find love again. But I continue to hope that, eventually, another special woman will once more make the wait seem worth every moment. And I know that when I find her nobody will be happier for me than Louise.