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Celeste McCullough, playing with her daughter Kailey at home, lost her husband six years ago and now is ready to meet someone special. (Susan Tripp Pollard/Staff)

Last year, Mia Moreno lost her husband of six years to a car accident. A weekly family Bible study at her home in Pittsburg has helped Moreno, a 25-year-old mother of three, cope. She has come to terms with the loss, and, these days, yearns to find connection with another.

Moreno has recently entered the dating world via nightclubs and Craigslist, and has been disappointed, to say the least.

"It's been horrible and scary," Moreno says. "I have my expectations and everything is a comparison to him. There's no rule book for this. No guideline. No time frame."

Looking for love is hard enough, but playing the field as a widow or widower involves a complex layer of emotions, such as guilt and insecurity, not to mention endless questions: How has the dating scene changed, and how do I know I'm ready? What will people say? Will my family and friends support me?

Moreno's loved ones believe it is too soon. But she doesn't plan to jump into a new relationship. She's looking for friendship first, she says.

"I'm an outgoing person, so to sit home and paint my walls black isn't me," she says.

Bev Fellows runs a group for people such as Moreno. Fellows, a widow of eight years, co-facilitates the 10-week grief recovery group at the Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church. Most join the group three to four months after the "dust settles a bit," she says.

"By the time we get to the end, there's laughing a little bit and people seeing there is a life for them after this tragedy," Fellows says.

Fellows used to attend Second Step, a group for widows and widowers interested in socializing that ran for 25 years in Contra Costa County. It is now defunct, and experts believe there is a void in community programming that addresses this second step.

"We honor a marriage, but why is it we don't signify when someone has divorced or passed?" asks ordained minister Ray Campton. "I would like more faith communities to have rituals for loss of loved ones."

Campton, who is also a Berkeley marriage and family therapist, says support — not approval — is critical for widows and widowers seeking new relationships. But it should not be the focus, and you should not feel obligated to accept that blind date set up by Aunt June or avoid online dating because your friends don't approve, Campton says.

What is a must: Use the new alone time to do mental and emotional inventory.

"It's an opportune time to stand silently and be still long enough to look back over the course of life and view your relationship history," Campton says.

In doing so, he says, you will begin to see patterns and dynamics and rediscover how well you know yourself and what you're looking for the second time around.

More than anything, Celeste McCullough of Concord was waiting for her young children's blessings. They were both younger than 5 when she was widowed six years ago. Even at the three-year mark, she wasn't ready to date but began seeing a friend's brother after they hit it off at a party. Then she tried Yahoo Personals and eHarmony. She met men at Safeway and the dog park, but nothing stuck.

Her heart wasn't in it until recently, when her 11-year-old daughter asked to "help pick one" of the men on her mother's computer screen. Now, everyone is a bit older and ready for an addition to the family.

"That was so cool," McCullough says. "I think we're ready."

Fred Nielsen knew he was ready when he started seeing Bobbie Dodson of Orinda. His wife had passed away from brain cancer two years before, and Nielsen had joined men's groups in Sonoma and Orinda, where he splits his time, and asked women out through church.

Out of practice for 50 years, Nielsen, 82, ran over his lines in his head. "I lost my nerve once and asked a third person to come (on the date) with us," he says.

But with Dodson, it was different. Comfortable. They shared interests. And he knew her through her late husband, Wally. The men had worked and car-pooled together for 30 years, and Nielsen recalled with fondness playing doubles tennis with the Dodsons.

Nielsen's brother, Harold, encouraged him to ask Dodson, 80, to a Christmas party luncheon. A month later, they went to a crab feed. The month after that, Dodson asked Nielsen to join her at Bay to Breakers. She'd been widowed for one year and enjoyed exploring the outdoors again with a man.

Wally always knew his wife would outlive him, and encouraged her to find someone else when he passed, Dodson says. So she prayed for direction and sought advice from her minister.

"He said, 'There's no specified time for grieving, and you're not getting any younger,'" Dodson recalls. "'And if you really think it's right, go for it.'"Š"

Nielsen proposed to Dodson on a cool February day. They will be married in a small church ceremony this June. The reception will take place in Dodson's garden, where the couple have shared many memories.

They married high school sweethearts the first time around, and believe those wonderful years make them willing and excited to embrace marriage again. They share a history that allows them to talk openly about their first loves whenever they feel the need. For that, they are eternally grateful.

"Love can be great the second time," Dodson says. "It's different, perhaps, than the first, but still exciting." As the couple look to the future, they say they think of the quote by Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjold: "For all that has been, thanks! To all that shall be, yes!"

Reach Jessica Yadegaran at 925-943-8155 or jyadegaran@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Re-entering the dating world can be daunting, especially following the death of a spouse. Here are tips from dating expert Jeannine Kaiser, and marriage and familiy therapist Ray Campton:

* Be patient with your grief. Unlike you, it is not on a timeline. It has a fluid motion.

* Redefine yourself as a single person. What are your new hobbies? Priorities?

* Wade into the dating pool; don't dive into the deep end. Find your social legs again by spending time in nonthreatening environments, such as church. Volunteer.

* Try online dating. It's a good way to start a relationship. Chat and get used to communicating with someone again.

* Ask yourself: What is a meaningful relationship to you now? What is love to you?

* Realize there is no exact replacement for your lost loved one. Don't compare. Your new partner will feel as if measuring up is impossible.

* When you go on a date, don't talk endlessly about your late partner. It brings a ghost into the relationship.

-- Jessica Yadegaran