Dating and relationships after widowhood – what a loaded concept, both for the widowed and everyone surrounding them. Who am I kidding? The mere idea of it is a minefield. Society puts so much pressure on us, the widowed. Just read about Patton Oswalt, his wife’s death, and his new love. He got so much grief for finding happiness again when society clearly thought it was “too soon”. After going through the worst pain of our lives, losing our spouse, our partner, we also must now tiptoe around the world that is suddenly made of delicate crystal, where one wrong step will shatter the roof over our heads. It’s how it felt, at least to me.
When I first decided that I wanted to try to date, actually date, it was seven months after Brandon’s death. I was tired of feeling so alone in the world. I missed that feeling of companionship, of having that person that you look forward to seeing at the end of the day, that person you want to talk to when you’re sad. For me, I thought I had already figured all that life stuff out: I found my person at 18, we got married at 23. I thought I was done; done with dating, done with looking, done with worrying about any of it. I was 23 and I had my life figured out: I was married to the man I love, we had good friends, we were starting to build a life together, I got the job I worked so hard for all through college. And then, just like that, I came home and found him dead.
I gave it a lot of thought and decided that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life alone, that I wanted to try and put myself out there and see where that got me. Because I wasn’t okay with where I was, I wanted to try something else. Something that looked different from the sad, sad monotonous existence I found myself living in: wake up, go to work, cry on the drive home, come to an empty house, feel isolated, watch mindless TV for hours, go to bed, rinse, repeat. I wanted a distraction, I wanted to feel something other than pain, misery, and loneliness. So, I made an online profile and decided to try this whole dating thing.
But that wasn’t where it ended. It wasn’t as simple as deciding to make a profile and start going on dates with people. I worried, I agonized, I felt like complete crap before, during, and after making the decision.
I worried about what my family, friends, and coworkers were going to think, what they would say.
I worried that people would think it was too soon and that I was a terrible person.
I worried that because I started dating it somehow meant that I wasn’t grieving enough, that I was grieving wrong.
I worried that people would think I didn’t love my husband enough.
I worried people were going to think that I was callous, that I was “over it”.
I worried that people would look at me and judge and belittle my immense loss.
I worried that people would think that because I was dating, meant that I didn’t miss my husband enough, that I wasn’t sad enough, that I wasn’t hurting enough.
I worried that people would think there was something wrong with me, that I wasn’t normal, that I was insensitive.
I was so afraid to do something, anything wrong and have people be upset with me or to think that I was awful.
So with all these worries and aches, I didn’t tell many people what I was doing. I felt like I was doing something wrong, something bad, something shameful. The only wrong in the situation, however, was that I ever felt that way to begin with. Society has all these stigmas it hands out like pamphlets on how you should act, feel, and behave during various life situations and events. The widowed are put into the box of black clothes, teary eyes, and stoic loneliness. We make people who haven’t joined the club very uncomfortable and the way we are usually dealt with is by being swept under the rug and ignored. No one knows what to do with us, what to say to us, and yet, everyone seems to have an opinion on anything we do to move forward through our loss.
And this is where the whole reason I’m writing this comes in: it is okay to move forward, it is okay for widows and widowers to start dating, whenever they want to, just like it is okay for them to never date, if that’s what they want. It doesn’t matter if it’s two months, two years, or ten years later. There is no “correct amount of time” to wait. There is no Bible on widowhood, there is no guide. We must make our own choices, our own decisions, our own paths through the dark and murky waters we suddenly find ourselves drowning in. Everyone’s grief is their own, and what is right for one person isn’t right for another. Grief isn’t a “one size fits all” pair of leggings. It’s a shadowy beasty that is always morphing, always transforming into something new. The only person who gets to have an opinion about anything to do with it is the one who has it raging inside them.
It is very difficult to date and start a new relationship after widowhood. I found myself full of anxiety and fears I never had before. When I knew that Will and I were more than just dating, when I knew that I felt something real for him, when I knew I wanted to have a life with him, I was terrified. It wasn’t just an ordinary “I’m scared of the new and unknown” fear. It was frigid, ice-cold, breath catching, you-are-frozen-solid-with-terror-because-you’ve-already-found-a-man-you-love-dead-and-nothing-says-it-can’t-happen-again type of fear. This fear was enough to make me pause, and think, really think, that maybe I was better off alone since that was the only way to guarantee not feeling that pain of loss again. But what kind of a life would that be? I didn’t want to allow this fear to control me; it’s not how I wanted to live my life, cowering in the corner, alone and afraid. So I didn’t let the fear stop me from living.
Now, I live with that fear of something happening to Will, every day. I think about it, every day. Whenever I don’t hear from him when I was expecting to, my mind jumps to “something happened and he’s dead”. Whenever he goes to work, I worry that it’s the last time that I will see him. I worry about him having an aneurysm, a heart attack, a clot, a car accident, randomly tripping and hitting his head just so. I worry about so many stupid, improbable scenarios, in all of which he ends up dead. These are the anxieties I live with, every day. I’ve been to therapy and I know all the right things to tell myself and to think, yet these fears don’t go away. And how could they? I came home one ordinary day and found my husband dead. That leaves a mark. I now know that I’m not immune from tragedy. Before Brandon’s death, things like that happened to other people, they happened on TV, they happened in newspapers. But everything is so different after it happens to you. That knowledge, that tragedy can happen to anyone at any time, changes you. So when you find love again, you worry, you fear that lightning will strike twice. Because that lightning is no longer just something that happens to other people. It happened once, it can happen again. It is very improbable, but that is a small comfort to a traumatized brain.
What I’m trying to say in a roundabout way is that dating and relationships are hard for the widowed. It takes a lot of courage and bravery to be that vulnerable again. And it doesn’t help when people get so focused on judging how long it’s been, or how soon they think it is for you to start dating again. The widowed survived a way within themselves, a savage and painful war, and the fact that they feel open to the possibility of dating should be celebrated, not belittled. It’s a hard place to get to. It doesn’t mean they didn’t love their deceased spouse, it doesn’t mean they aren’t hurting. It means they are crawling forward, through the wreckage of their old life. And that is a beautiful thing. It shouldn’t be tarnished because it makes some people uncomfortable and uneasy. You know what’s uncomfortable and uneasy? Having a dead spouse.
If you’re reading this and you’ve never been widowed but maybe know someone who has been, please cut them some slack. Don’t be quick to judge. Don’t say something that will make them feel worse than they already do. If they decide to start dating, be supportive. They didn’t make that decision lightly. Instead of reading society’s pamphlets on what is “right and proper”, look at the person, as a person. Understand that just because you think something isn’t right, or too fast, or the right decision, doesn’t make it so for that person. They are doing the best they can with the cards that were dealt to them and they need your support, not judgement.
For me, Brandon’s death is the single worst thing that I have ever been through in life. I didn’t want to date. It’s not something I was happy to do. It wasn’t something I was looking forward to. What I wanted, above all else, was to have Brandon not be dead, to see his smile one more time, to hear his voice, to hold his hand. I wanted my life back. But that was no longer an option, no matter how desperately I wanted it. So I chose to crawl forward. Eventually that crawl turned into steps, and those steps into a walk. It has been five years and I am still walking through the grief. It is different now than it was during the first year, or during the third year, but it is still there. The shadowy beasty didn’t leave. I don’t think it will ever leave, but at this point, we have gotten used to living together.