My guest today is Helen Keeling-Neal. She’s a licensed mental health counselor, licensed marriage and family therapist and a nationally certified counselor with a private practice in my hometown of Winter Park, Florida. As well. Helen is on the board for us here at Growth through Grief. So we’re really happy to have her, and her mission on the board is to guide our practice on all things concerning the mind and mental health.
Prior to her work in that area. Helen was a Creative where she served as an adjunct professor at the University of Central Florida and radio and television production. She’s the director of a children’s art studio, My Art Studio, and President of multimedia agency Emerge Media.
And unfortunately, Helen has a personal experience with grief and loss. She is a widow, with her husband passing away when her children were only four and six years old
Helen, we are ready to talk about a topic that I think is really important to a lot of widowers. But one that I don’t know if many of us talk a lot about it, whether it’s to each other or to other people. And that’s dating, dating after loss,
When someone becomes a widow or widower society definitely has certain expectations about what’s the proper mourning period? When should you start dating again? You know, is it six months? Is it one year? But every one of us knows that we’ve gone through a different journey in our loss and our grieving and a different process. So the first question I have for you is around that. Because I know this is a serious one that every widower, and I’m sure you as a widow grappled with .. When is the right time?
Helen Keeling-Neal 2:22
Yeah, well, who the hell knows Tom?
Coming to you for answers, like six months, one year? two years, four years?
Well, we’re all different, we’re all different. And then the process of losing a loved one is different, too. So there are those like you, you went through a very long process of not having a partner who was able to engage. So a really long time where you would have felt lonely.
So in that aspect, one would think that you would probably want to date sooner, because you’d be craving connection and craving, being with somebody.
Someone else who might have had a sudden loss, it might be different, that would take some time to get over that sudden loss.
But we are all different. And it’s really difficult, because there are these social rules, which are not clear about how long it should take. And then there are family rules, which are not clear about how long it should take, and all are connected to their emotional response.
If someone starts to date someone else, after loss, they have an emotional response and possibly even receive a judgment on the activity. So it really has to be about the individual.
And it has to be about the individual in what works for them. Now, that being said, what works for someone may be to avoid the feelings of grief at that moment in time. And to immediately get into a relationship. The challenging piece about that is those feelings of grief don’t go away. They just compartmentalize and they’ll come up and bite them in the ass later. But again, maybe that is part of someone’s journey.
Yeah, Helen, I think you kind of nailed my story pretty well. So my wife indeed had a long battle with cancer. And we did not have a very close relationship in those in those last few years.
She had a brain tumor that took a lot of a lot out of her and a lot out of the relationship, unfortunately as well. And so I was lonely. It was a very, very lonely time for me probably over those last three years, without very much intimacy and that kind of partnership that we had so strongly, before that, especially during the first five to ten years of the relationship,
The last three was just not very close. So I was definitely needing ,craving that connection. I would say that I was also vulnerable and ill prepared. I didn’t have good faith, and honestly, I needed external validation because I had gotten my ass kicked through this process.
I was in this battle as her champion, as many husbands feel through the process. We want to solve the problem. And it didn’t get solved. And a guy here who normally could solve pretty much anything, is now feeling really weak and without faith to turn to, to kind of restore that. I really felt the need for external validation. So it really didn’t take me long at all to get into a relationship. From your experience, that’s not too uncommon for someone, similar to my story.
It’s not uncommon. You would be craving connection, craving, knowing that you’re attractive to someone and someone’s attracted to you. You’d be craving sexual intimacy, all of that, that goes along with it. So it’s very normal.
I think getting into relationship right away, is part of your story. You needed that, so that you could become who you are today. And that’s why I tend to stay away from judging a timeframe or a time window, because everybody is so individual, and everybody brings their own story.
And not just the story of the process to the loved one passing away. But the story before that, how they were raised, their attachment styles, any trauma wounds from beforehand. So it really is an individual journey, for sure.
And I am grateful in some ways for that less than perfect initial relationship with less than perfect timing. As you said, it’s part of my journey. She was a fitness instructor: spin, yoga running, I was able to not only make that connection, but really get back to physical fitness. I lost 60 pounds, I gained my sobriety through that relationship. And there were some invaluable things that I took away from that relationship.
Talk about the importance of, even though you know, some of these relationships might not be perfect, how important it really is to try to take things away from them that are our positives, and learn from each relationship. Honestly, I felt like I was back in middle school. Yeah, going back out there in the dating world. I felt like I was a child, again, from an experience standpoint and I’m sure that that’s not unusual, either.
That’s it’s right on. I think there’s a need to practice dating. When we’re back in that sort of dating world. It’s changed completely from how it used to be, how you show up and how you meet people. There’s so many different avenues now.
And you know, I was never very good at it anyway. So I had to learn how to do it. So I tell my clients to practice… to go out and practice. The first time I went on a date I remember this for myself. It was about 10 months, and I’ve gone on eHarmony, where they had a long form to fill out with all these questions and everything about it was really overwhelming.
So I go out to dinner with this fellow. And it was nice to know chit chat. And then at the end of dinner. We’re in the car park and he’s going to give me a hug goodbye. And I went home and I cried for three days because he didn’t smell like David. He had cologne on, and it was the wrong cologne. All my brain could say the second I smelled that cologne was the emotional brain fired.. And I just cried for three days. The wrong clothes. This is the wrong person. It was really really painful. So you know we have different experiences.
You used it as a way to get some needs met that had not been met for a very long time.
Yeah. And you needed to get out there as part of the healing process to realize that.
Yes, I needed to get out there, sniff the wrong cologne, and cry for three days, and then pick myself back up and get back out again. Yeah, exactly.
Part of what you said earlier that I took to heart was, if you do get out there is that,sometimes through the relationship process, if you’re already engaging with somebody in a relationship, that maybe you haven’t done the work that needs to be done and the work in the grieving process. Maybe you’re just getting out there and substituting and pushing it down.
Talk about that a little bit. Talk about how important it is to do the work while you’re in the process, to make sure that you’re not forgetting about the grief,that you’ve gone through that properly, and that you’re properly prepared for a new relationship, which I know I wasn’t.
I was grieving through the disease process. So there was definitely a grief that was experienced. But the passing, I really didn’t reconcile because I jumped into a relationship. And I didn’t think about getting into a relationship: who I wanted, or who I should be with as a compliment to me. What I wanted, other than just going and doing, wasn’t so mindful.
Not mindful, right. But nonetheless good to have it and learn from it.
I think this is why I love your widowers brotherhood group. Because I think your group creates a forum for men to do some of that work, and to tap into the wisdom and experience of other men who’ve lost their spouses, before they get out into the dating world. Because if that grief is not expressed and released, it will compound and then if that relationship ends, then you’ve got a compound grief situation. In particular, if the person doesn’t want it to end. I
So it’s really important, but what “grief work” looks like to everybody is individual. We know the Stages of Grief we hear about: the anger, sadness, denial, the bargaining, acceptance. I’ve always found grief to be completely nonlinear. So I might go through different stages at different times. So you could be in different areas in different categories.
My children don’t have a Dad, clearly, that still touches me when I told you that story in a previous podcast, and I teared up about my daughter Cat’s experience at being angry at her Dad for dying. So grief is done in a way that’s nonlinear. It’s in pockets and pods of feelings. So you can’t plan for it: I’m going to grieve for the next six months, and then I’m going to date because it doesn’t work that way.
And I think some of the greatest healing, as long as you’re with someone who can understand and hold space for it, can be done in the current relationship. Because we see this even with divorce, even with girlfriends and boyfriends ending. Usually you finish up with a piece of grief that will continue in the new relationship, because it kicks up the stuff that’s connected to the old relationship and your past.
You have to be with someone mature enough and enlightened enough to be aware that your grief probably still isn’t done a year in two years in,three, four, etc.
it’s gonna pop up. My daughter’s are 17 and 19. We’re a long way away, we’re coming up on 13 years of David having passed on. But there are going to be times when one of them gets married, that’s going to be a big gap, a big hole in that special occasion, and there’s going to be grief there. That’s going to come up for me. it’s going to come up for them. So it’s sort of a lifetime thing. But it does get easier and more manageable the further apart from the time of passing we get.
Now some of the work that we can do by ourselves. I know one recommendation is make sure that you’re comfortable with being alone, and do the work while you’re alone. So that you don’t need someone. So that you’re not looking for that external validation. So that you’re not all of a sudden codependent with someone, and all of a sudden in Fawn mode, which tends to happen once grief sets in.
Yes, my least favorite movie quote is “You complete me”.
Exactly. You want them to be the “Icing on the cake, not the cake”.
Yes, well said. S I think this is different for everybody. Because some people, because of their attachment styles will never, ever be able to be alone. That would take deeper work. So we’re not looking at just grief with the loved one who’s been lost. But we’re looking at everything from those formative years and childhood years, all the way up to the present, and how that informs the grief process.
I took being alone as in, not in a relationship to the extreme, and just dodged it for a long time. For years. I dodged relationships, I meet someone. And then I would just find a reason why it wasn’t right.
Flight was your amygdala, emotional brain reaction.
I’m really good at being alone. Technically, I’m not alone, because I have one kid left in the house, but not being in a relationship. I’m really good at it.
But that’s an issue too, because then you get used to not having chocolate and you don’t miss it and have a little chocolate. And now you’re like, “Wait a second?”. No, I didn’t know … maybe I do want a relationship. So it’s this extreme place.
But being alone. And having that experience, I think what you’re meaning is having space to have the feelings and to let them up. Because, you know, having your group is different from walking through it alone. So it’s really important to have a support system. Your talking about not jumping into another relationship, to medicate the feelings and shut them down.
Yes, not to medicate with a relationship.
And it takes practice to be in the same home where that you shared with your loved one. It takes time and practice to get comfortable with going to a restaurant that was special to you.
When you’re ready, go and then cry, then, or get angry, or whatever comes up for you. Because that’s an important part of the work. If we’re avoiding everything and every one as a way to avoid the feelings, then that’s detrimental. It’s detrimental to physical and emotional wellness.
And it’s going to be a setup for some pretty significant depression, if we can let them out real-time as the emotions happen. Or at least within a short time period, it’s better overall. And to do that, we need a certain amount of being alone or solo time.
I think “to be mindful” is what I was getting at ,and to do work. To maybe go back and look at where you have attachment issues. And some of them, you’ve got to go back with a therapist, to childhood to your teen years and do some work there. So it’s really the space to do the work and to be mindful.
So a little backwards, I’m two serious relationships in, and then I’m doing this mindful work. First, creating the list of values that I have for myself, and getting those on paper and really keeping that list up to date. And then the second was documenting the values that I seek in a partner.
And I wouldn’t say that it’s a checklist that you can go in and hand to your date,and say, “Okay, fill this out, do the pretest for me, and then we’ll know if we get through this coffee or not”. We’re not talking about that. But you do want to know, what are the things that you value. And whether it be in the way that you treat your body the way that you treat your mind, your spiritual well being. And then how you project that into the world. And then the second is, what do you value in a partner. And then how those two are going to match up.
So you’re looking for alignment.
It’s particularly difficult as a therapist. When I go on a date, I have to counsel myself. This is not an intake. It’s not an intake. It’s not an intake, but it kind of is, right we’re doing intakes on each other. But the key piece that you said,, which I think is so important here, is that you wrote down your values and became introspective, and went on a mission of finding who you are.and what are you looking for in someone else.
That order, I think, is essential. Don’t make the list for what you want in a partner until you’ve looked at your own list, and who you are, and maybe even some of the areas that you may want to work on, especially not expecting your partner to check off all the boxes that fill the holes that you have in yourself.
Right, right. And again, we have to sort of look back and attachment and upbringing, things like that, because the holes that we have, or the the wounds, from unmet needs in early childhood, we tend to look towards our partners to fill those unmet needs from back there. But nobody in the present can fill an unmet need from the past. We’re the only ones who can fill our own unmet needs. So it won’t ever work, because we’re just looking for someone to do something that they can never accomplish for us.
The other thing, I think that a lot of people get hung up on is, they’ll have their value list that they think their partner is checking the boxes on, or not checking the boxes on. And then there’s the future, and a lot of times, we will make up stories about the future and kind of project goodness that may not be there in our partner, where values that are not there, and we start living in a fantasy world.
Yeah, this is what we want. Right?
Yeah. Because of what we want. And we want them to be that. And so you project that on them. And meanwhile, they’re really not that. We’re projecting this fantasy on them. Or, we’re expecting them to change some core fundamental things that they are today to match the values that we’ve got down in our list. For example, they’re not spiritual, but I’ll get him there … they don’t like any physical activity but I’ll get him to do that. They’ll come to the gym with me
Talk about these fantasy projections into the future.
Yes, well, when one is in a relationship, there’s a certain need for practicing radical acceptance of who that person is. Because if that person is like this, but if we could, oh, I could get them and mold them and change them…
That’s just going to build resentment over time for both of you because they’re gonna resent the control of them, needing to change so that they can be good enough for you, and you’re gonna resent the fact that they’re not changing quickly enough, or in the way that you want them to change.
So that is just relationally across the board. Do not expect the changes.
And then the piece about looking for looking for the pony in the pile of manure when sometimes it really is manure and like you’re digging around, “No, there’s got to be a pony, it’s coming in at any moment as a pony, I noticed a pony in here underneath this manure”.
There’s not always a pony. Maya Angelou would say “If someone shows you who they are, believe them”. One of my issues as a therapist is, you know, someone will show me who they are, and maybe there’s got some very selfish or narcissistic tendencies, but I’m like, this is just from their wounds from their childhood, and I need to hold space and compassion for this person. But after a certain amount of time holding space and compassion for someone, it’s time to get out. It really is because you’re just not jiving on the same wavelength.
And as a codependent caretaker. A nurture a style person. which is me and I think you’re some of that too, right Tom? We want to see the best in people. We want to help people rise up and, what tends to happen is we end up putting ourselves back down and settling for crumbs or “less than” because we’re putting their care and holding space for them ahead of our own.
And so it’s really important not to self abandon. We could even see it a little bit as a form of toxic positivity of always seeing the best in someone, but ignoring the reality.
Yeah. And then what happens is, as you indicate, you don’t have good boundaries for that yourself. And so resentment comes into play, and you start resenting that person for what you’re actually allowing to occur, what you’re enabling to occur.
Exactly. And not taking responsibility for showing up, and the way that I’m showing up, but you’re showing up in the relationship, it’s all based on us and our own choices.
Yes, we can spend hours on that.
So what I want to do is get on to dating, but I hadn’t dated in decades. You hadn’t dated in decades. And then all of a sudden, we lose our spouses. And we’re out there again. You know, I didn’t ask for that.
So 30 to 40 years on for some of the brothers and now they’re back out in the dating world. How do you take the first couple of steps to meet a potential candidate? And not just a potential candidate, but really good quality people.
Yeah, well, let’s face it, dating is basically a shit show, isn’t it? We’ve got the friends who are trying to set us up with their best friends. And then you know, the pressure in that. And then we’ve got Internet dating, and I’m really looking to tell some stories about that.
And then we’ve got the bar scene. But you know, that’s not my scene, that’s not your scene. When you’re, when you’re dating in the bar scene, there is a lot of alcohol involved, you’re not dating that person, you’re dating someone who’s frontal cortex is offline already, as is yours. So you’re not making mindful choices or decisions within that.
And then there’s spiritual locations where you can meet people, but it’s really difficult. It’s very difficult to do.
After 10 months and that first date, I then waited a little bit. And then I went on another date. On that one, I was driving to the date. And on my way there, I got myself married, divorced and pissed off before I even met the guy, because then all this whole narrative sabotages the situation.
So I think finding quality people, you don’t know that is until you find somebody and spend some time with them, and figure out who they are. I think George Carlin has this whole comedy routine about how for the first six months you’re dating, that person is a representative. And so you want to make sure that you are as authentic as you can be earlier on in that relationship. Now, I’m not saying we’re just gonna go like, here’s my baggage, take it or leave it. You don’t really want the person to stay because they’re attracted to the baggage. So you don’t want to do that…that needs to come out during little bits and pieces.
But it’s going to be a dating forensic investigation to find that, but I want to go back to what you said before, which is you knowing what your values are. First, you knowing who you are, and what you want, is it loyalty or time together? Availability, all of these pieces? That’s why knowing your love language, I think is good to practice.
Not only do I have the list of values for me, and values for her, but I also took time to do love language tests. And I will have that as a pretty early-on discussion. Maybe not the first coffee, which for me, by the way, Helen, when you said you went to dinner on that first date … definitely not, No dinners as a first meetup.
I didn’t know back then but agree.
Yes, only leave an hour for it. And I’ll tell you what, the ones that you want to have end in an hour, they end in an hour. I’ve had coffees that lasted two to three hours when I was interested and those wound up becoming some good, longer term relationships out of that.
I do think that getting out there on dating apps, as many brothers that I’ve talked to have done, and many fellow widows as well. They’ve had good luck with it, although there’s a lot of scamming and catfishing going on. Be careful.
And I do think that over time, although I met at least two great women through that process, one that I was with for quite a while, it’s when I went back to the dating apps for a hot minute most recently, it really felt very “shallow” to me. It was like scrolling through a catalog. And I did not feel like it was the best way possible for me.
I do think it expands your horizons a little bit. And I and I think that the way I approached it was also, I think, good in that when I went on dates casually, as opposed to you, Helen, who went through and had yourself dating, married, and divorced., For me, I was like: “I’m here just to kind of meet somebody and have an adventure of meeting someone with zero expectations”. You’re practicing. And I think there was something good about that.
And it’s not like you can’t meet someone for a relationship, but going in with zero expectations and making sure their coffee dates only Yes,
Having healthy limits and boundaries with it.
Now I think for better relationships, where it matched my values a lot better is the coffee shop, where I’ve met plenty of great people there, or great exercise group classes. whether that be yoga, or cycle cycling, I go to CycleBar for my spin class. Whether it is body pump at the Y or the gym. I think those are good environments, because you almost build like, for me, my spin class and my yoga class are like second families. Especially with work from home and COVID. when the exercise classes opened back up, that was at times the only people I see … at the coffee shop, the spin class and yoga, so they can be very social environmenst.
And you’re already aligned. You’re aligned.
Churches, another great one, where I’ve met some great people at worship nights and things like that.
And then also, I think, hobbies. We’ve had a couple of brothers that have started to take up new hobbies, whether it be art, or dancing, or other things like that. Writing, where a couple of men have taken up a writing class. And that’s been really, really helpful for them
Again, it’s all aligned on the value.
And then the friends and the blind dates, I met my, my late-wife on a blind date. And a dear friend set us up. And I’m dating someone now who was a blind date set up. I mean, we knew each other, but we didn’t know that we were interested in each other. So we were spurred on by a dear joint friend of ours. And that can be a wonderful way to meet, because they come vetted, The bottom-line: There’s no perfect way. And you just have to put yourself out there. We’re not going to meet anyone staying at home, right? Don’t be afraid to practice.
I think it matters, the personality style factors in here. Because for those who are more introverted, they’re not going to want to go out to those bigger social situations. And so for them, it can be a little bit more helpful to start with the apps and do it that way. Because they’re not the ones who are going to engage in conversation. And, you know, we have this male-female dynamic piece where the male is supposed to engage in the conversation first, which is difficult for someone who’s introverted to initiate that. So in that sense, I think that can be helpful for that personality style for the dating apps. And then time constraints and location restraints and things like that mean that dating apps can be helpful.
But I have to say, with a dating app, I think it’s better to have that coffee meetup earlier on. Just go for the coffee. Because then you’ll know within an hour or less.
I’ve got a friend of mine, Helen, a guy friend who is on dating apps every once in a while. And I mean, he’ll psychoanalyze every one of the candidates.. And to me, that wasn’t that important. They didn’t need to be perfect or seem like they were perfect, right? You know, for me, it was about just meeting people. And I really enjoyed that.
For comparison. I’m an introvert overall, but quite a bit extroverted on the scale. So there is more of a balance between E and I (Meyers Briggs).
As an ambivert it is a little bit easier.
You know, I can turn on the extrovert, and then I do need my quiet writing time. For introverts, it’s a little bit harder to get out there. I do find that people overthink. They’re projecting into the future like, “Will they not like me? Is this person, someone I could be with for the rest of my life?”. It’s important to have the checklist and be mindful. But when it comes to the first date, or the second date, or the third date … It’s just coffee.
It’s just coffee. Yeah. Right. And even after the third date, you don’t have to be thinking about the rest of your life. And I’ll tell my clients, this thing about practicing and when you go, have no agenda other than to enjoy a coffee and that it. Just like you said, the opposite of what I did that second time.
And then you can be yourself a little bit more, which I think is so important, as otherwise, we put on these masks and try to be perfect in these dates. And I think that’s the exact opposite of what you need to do.
You want to be just as authentic as you can, if you’re nervous, just be nervous.
The introverts, I think, because the app brokers that first connection, it’s easier, because you’re just going for coffee with one person, so it sort of opens that door for them. In that sense, it’s positive in that way. And not everybody has the confidence that you might have Tom, or I might have with talking to people. You and I both, we strike up conversations with complete strangers at a coffee shop all the time. So we’re sort of practiced at that. But not everybody is in that sense.
Exactly. So one last topic to talk about. And that’s families. As we start dating, and as we start getting out there,it can be hard on our kids and families. So talk about family and dating?
Every family is different, right? For some kids, and some of this is age as well developmental age dependent. My eldest daughter would be sobbing three months after David died, asking me “When am I gonna get a new Daddy, I don’t have a daddy”. I mean, she would be sobbing and asking me about that. And I’d be like, “Wow that’s gonna be no new Dad for a while”.
If the children are teenagers, they usually do not take well to that. And it can be very difficult.
The thing that I did that I don’t really recommend is, because I was so concerned when my kids were concerned about bringing new people in…I had a relationship that was a little longer than a year. And, I knew that that relationship was not a long term relationship for me, we weren’t aligned in the ways that I would need to be. I never fell in love and you know, I’m not going to be in a long term relationship. Looking to the future , if I’m not in love with someone, he wasn’t in love with me either. Clearly, so I ended it but the challenge with the family is you’re now having another loss for your kids, which is really difficult on top of that.
And then if you’re bringing someone into a family environment and you’re connected with your in-laws, they can struggle with accepting someone new or a replacement, and that kicks up their grief, and can kick up a resentment. And then with the kids, they’ve lost mom or they’ve lost Dad. and they have you and then now your time is being shared over here and potentially with someone who also has children, who then they get part of you as well.
So kids can be really upset about that time-split, and need the reassurance that you are Dad and they are your priority, and will stay your priority.
And blended families can be really difficult. When there’s one parent who’s deceased, and then the other one who maybe is divorced, that makes it really difficult because this person over here still has both parents, maybe just in different locations. Now, this person over here is sharing time over here with somebody who still has both parents. And so managing the perception and the expectations along the way, talking with the kids about it. Checking in and normalizing their feelings, but still making the decision as an adult. When you know, not letting a raging 14 year old dictate that you’re not allowed to date.
I know a widow whose son flat out says, “I never want to see you with another man, you are not getting married, or dating again”. Yeah, that’s tough. And she’s gonna have a hard time introducing anyone to him.
Right. And so with that, there’s something to watch out for. And that is the fact that sometimes an an adult a parent, we can enroll our child in the emotional role of co-parent, or as spouse emotionally, and start trying to meet their needs through that child, especially teenagers, because they like the responsibility, they like to step up, they want to be in charge, they want to be in control.
So you have to be really careful, because once that adolescent is enrolled in that role, as the parent or the adult or the surrogate spouse, they will not be enrolled from that, and it’s going to be a fracture. The best thing is for a teenager to date someone, it’s for them to get a girlfriend or a boyfriend, that’s the best thing, then they can be busy over there. Well, that goes
Helen, we could talk for a while on this, we will come back to the dating topic, definitely in another episode.
But for now, what’s the one piece of advice you’d like to leave our growth warriors with today about dating?
Well, I’m going to take the piece that you said, which is to be introspective first, so you know where you are. Because knowing where and who you are, is what points you in the direction of where and with whom you want to go.
And then I’m going to add a second one. And that is to only introduce people to your children into the family when you’re sure there’s going to be some continuity. Don’t do it very quickly, because you don’t want to have a revolving door in and out. You want to see and make sure that this is someone you’re going to be with for a chunk of time and manage the kid’s expectations.