When I first began dating, I feared others’ judgment while also judging myself. Wouldn’t a good widow embrace a solitary life? If my love for him was epic and eternal, shouldn’t my grief be too? On the message boards of the online widow support groups , responses to questions about dating most commonly expressed loyalty and exclusivity. “He was my one and only,” one declared. “No one could ever take his place,” another agreed. Yes, I thought. That’s true. Dating looked like an act of betrayal. Maybe it was.
I felt thankful when most family and friends supported my decision to try dating. “You’re brave,” my generous sister-in-law praised me after I confessed. “Whatever you need,” friends told me. “I love you, and I’m here for you no matter what.” Still, the exceptions were painfully memorable. “I’m not judging you, but just know that other people are,” one person frankly informed me after learning I had been on a date. Yes, I thought. People are judging me. That’s true.
After my life had been fractured by loss, my erratic behavior made judgment inescapable. One reason for this was that my husband’s sudden death had destroyed both my marriage and my basic social skills. Persistent conversational gaffes strained my attempts at small talk. When a new colleague who recently relocated to the area asked, “When did you move here?” my automatic response was, “In 2000, for my dead husband’s job.” She visibly blanched. Others’ responses to my conversational blunders similarly showed me that I needed to construct a different narrative about my life to share with others. I needed to forge a new identity as someone who was single and to craft less offensive answers to common questions.
Writing an online dating profile was a first step forward. Although being a widow was profoundly lonely, I wasn’t looking for love, intimacy, or even companionship. Instead, I was looking for a chance to redefine myself, to tell an appropriate version of my life story, and to practice having acceptable casual conversations.
Early “dates” gave me these opportunities at the same time that they consistently felt like failed job interviews. I was open to meeting almost anyone single — divorced, widowed, or never married. These men came from different places, religions, and careers: an attorney, a baker, a car mechanic, an engineer, a hair stylist, a high school teacher, a landscaper, a minister, a psychiatric ward attendant, a school psychologist, and a speech therapist. We met once, for either coffee or cocktails. Most men either hadn’t read or didn’t remember my profile. Typically, they asked about my divorce, how long ago it was finalized or whether my ex-husband lived nearby. A few months in, I felt proud to simply say, “He doesn’t live here anymore,” having successfully suppressed an immediate, defensive internal response.
It took some time before I felt open to a second date with anyone. During a first coffee date, “Sean” asked me about losing my husband. His eyes shone with sympathy. Unlike others, he seemed truly interested in getting to know me. Also, refreshingly, he directly acknowledged the pain of loss. I was intrigued and grateful. For the first time, I realized that dating actually might lead to connection. In a milestone moment, I agreed to a second date.
And yet, I wouldn’t agree to stop “dating” – meeting other men once for coffee or cocktails. With frustration, Sean explained what a mistake this was, how I apparently didn’t yet realize how dating multiple people at the same time derails real connection, an exceedingly rare discovery. Why was I risking this, risking us? “Us“ felt wrong and presumptuous, but I had no good answer. His frustration grew, and during our frequent texts, he sounded increasingly demanding and resentful. Our tenuous connection soured, then ended.
In hindsight, I found the answer to his question. During my early months of dating, I was searching for my late husband. I wouldn’t, couldn’t, and didn’t give up looking for him. I looked everywhere – at the gym, the bank, the drugstore, the park, and also, on the online dating site. Time and again, I searched. Scrolling through the profiles of available men online, I carefully studied those who shared any of my late husband’s attributes or features: someone witty, or educated, or with an angular face. No one measured up. It was endlessly frustrating. The dating site boasted: “New profiles added daily,” regularly offering fresh hope. Searching was part of the grief process – to stop searching was to let go.
Not all widows want to date, and in many cases the costs of dating, including internal guilt and external judgment, outweigh any benefits. But guilt and judgment overlook a now obvious truth: no matter what I did or who I met, grief was a constant new companion.
For me, beginning to date was a necessary part of grieving my late husband, an essential phase in accepting the reality of a new life that I didn’t want. Dating gave me opportunities to talk to other adults also living lives that they didn’t want. It allowed me to interact with people who had never known me as a happily married woman. It helped me think about myself in a new way, as a single woman, and to reclaim my lost social skills. And perhaps most importantly, dating allowed me to search for my late husband, a search that, although irrational and fruitless, I needed to pursue. Over time, as my searching repeatedly failed, I gradually let go of the hope of finding him. I gradually learned to more fully accept the fact that he’s truly gone from this world. And I was beginning to develop a new type of hope. I was beginning to consider a future in which my love for him endured at the same time that I might build new connections that could lead to intimacy, or maybe even love.