'Love Amid the Ruins': Tread Lightly

Plane crash survivors. Parents of a murdered child. 9/11 spouses.

Those who survive life's harshest blows often turn to others who have experienced similar pain. Just this week, reports swirled about the latest love match: The mother of missing teen Natalee Holloway and the father of slain child model JonBenet Ramsey.

Relationships in the aftermath of tragedy -- with all the fireworks of common grief and understanding -- often fizzle as time moves on. But finding a romantic connection is a common human response to grief, according to psychologists.

"Trauma is overwhelming," said Therese Rando, a clinical psychologist from the Institute for the Treatment and Study of Loss in Warwick, R.I., who counseled patients after the 2003 nightclub inferno.

"We feel alone and unfamiliar, anxious and confused," she said. "We look to others for our sense of self and isolation and how to deal with it. That's why mutual support groups resonate -- because of the 'been there done that' the rest of the world can't understand."

John Ramsey and Beth Holloway Twitty met through a speakers' organization, according to their shared lawyer. Psychologists say that those who have lost a child or spouse often find each other in like-minded causes, support groups and chat rooms.

Seeking love can be a healthy part of grieving, but attraction alone is not enough to hold a couple together, said Rando. Trying to avoid pain or seeking an immediate replacement to avoid dealing with mourning will not stand the test of time.

"A long-term relationship has to be based on more than initial commonality," said Rando. "It has to be based on healthy factors like empathy and respect."

In the aftermath of 9/11, the wives of fallen firefighters turned to their husbands and co-workers for solace. Many other widowed spouses sought comfort from one another. Rescue workers fell in love with volunteers.

"It's complicated," said Grace Christ, a professor at Columbia University's School of Social Work, who has collaborated with the New York City Fire Department to counsel 9/11 wives with dependent children.

"These women are in the process of reconstituting their lives and identities and trying to move forward," said Christ. "They are redefining their selves and their families. It's more stressful than people commonly understand."

Last year, in a survey leading up to the five-year anniversary of 9/11, Columbia's counselors asked the 250 firefighter wives about their lives. Only 15 percent of the 115 widows who responded had remarried.

Though young -- most were under 45 -- another 49 percent said they were not dating at all.

While the wives were more comfortable and confident with their lives, they still recognized the complexity of dating again, according to Christ. "It's not that simple," she said. "And it takes time."

Still, these women said they felt it was important to start anew even if though they "felt as if they were still grieving," said Christ. When they did, they were drawn to relationships that "reminded them of the old one."

Nikki Stern, a freelance writer from Princeton, N.J., lost her husband Jim on the 94th floor of 1 World Trade Center. Tall, handsome and easy to get along with, he had been the center of her life throughout their strong, 11-year marriage.

"He was a computer person, not one of those movers and shakers in the American finance world," Stern told ABC News. "We just adored each other."

The couple had no children and were looking forward to retirement when tragedy struck. Stern wrote about her all-consuming grief in a "Modern Love" column in The New York Times last year.

"First, I surrendered to the grief," she wrote. "I stopped eating. Then I tried drinking, but found that booze doesn't mix with acid reflux. I considered drugs but hadn't a clue as to what to take. I even considered suicide, but was either too weak or too strong -- I'm not sure which."

Stern said she knew she had to find love again to heal. She became executive director of the advocacy group Families of September 11th -- cringing at her new role of widow, which she associated with "going into the nursing home."

Halfway through the first year, she began an affair with a man who had also lost family in the 9/11 tragedy.

"In a time of jumbled lives, shattered hearts and altered expectations, people were thrown together and torn apart," she wrote. "Some of those relationships were temporary, some became permanent and the jury is still out on the others."

Ultimately, the relationship did not survive, but -- like a first love -- she had felt "desirable, desired and alive."

Today, Stern is still single, living with her dog Molly in the same home she shared with her husband -- one constant in her life. As a woman in her 50s, living in suburbia, she is not optimistic about the future.

"It's very difficult for women to meet men and even more difficult as they get over 40," said Stern. "I would have loved to have proven myself wrong. But I wanted to see if I could love again. What I think now on bad days is that it is going to be very unlikely that it will be a fit again."

Counselors say that after tragedy survivors find themselves like Stern, lost in a foreign world, forever changed.

Dr. Katherine Shear, a psychiatrist at Columbia University's School of Social Work, said seeking out love to help navigate this new world can be healing if it is part of embracing positive feelings again.

"It makes absolute sense, even though there is no data on this," said Shear. "When you go though something traumatic, you suddenly feel disconnected from your ordinary life, sort of like you've changed and finding someone else who shares the same experiences is comforting to many people."

Grief can be especially profound when the person is an "attachment figure," or central to the survivor's life, according to Shear. So-called "complicated grief" can set in when some sort of healing does not begin within six months.

"We seem to be programmed to gradually deal with the death of a loved one," Shear said. "For most people it eventually keeps them close in our heart but everything is not focused on them any more. It takes a while, regardless of how the person died."

"My advice is not to make a permanent connection," she said. "Have a relationship that is satisfying and pleasurable during the period of loss and dealing."

Stern doesn't regret what she calls her "love amid the ruins." Today she leads a somewhat solitary life as a writer, posting essays on her blog and hoping to do radio segments for podcasts.

"I think maybe what tragedy does is it blunts the other things you don't have in common and magnifies the things that you do," reflects Stern. "And temporarily, you are in the same place. I feel that I have permanently changed not the essence of who I am, but my life."

She recently did a radio show recounting some funny, but "annoying" attempts to find love online.

"I don't know whether having someone else in my life would help," said Stern. "I miss him so badly -- and I know some people talk about moving on -- but I don't know if it would lessen that."