After more than a decade of marriage, my husband passed away. Now I’m going out for the first time at 39.
I was one of the lucky ones. I met Matt, my husband, when I was 22. Fresh out of college, not a real heartache to my name, he was my first real boyfriend. I married him and we had a fairy tale life. Until he was diagnosed with aggressive brain cancer and our world fell apart. He died less than two years later. Now I’m dating – for the first time in my life. At 39 years old.
I dipped my toe into the world of online dating about 18 months after Matt died. At first I looked for Matt in each profile – obviously he wasn’t there, but the guilt and grief were often there.
When the pandemic shut down the world, dating apps became a way to simply connect with other single parents who needed the occasional adult conversation. When I matched with a man I was interested in, forming a relationship didn’t even seem possible. But chatting on the app turned into meeting for outdoor walks while maintaining a 6ft distance, which turned into entering each other’s pandemic bubbles.
As the world stood still, we took steps forward. It was my first serious relationship after the loss, and the enforced slowness made me feel safe.
For a long time, the limits of dating during a pandemic isolated us. We got to know each other without the demands of real life. Then life started to return to normal – a new normal – and slowly problems started to arise. Small issues with communication styles and relationship direction eventually turned into issues that were impossible to ignore.
Yet I did, largely because I didn’t know any better.
My marriage had never required conscious effort. Matt and I had grown into adults together and had somehow instinctively navigated each other’s needs and limitations. Which is an unusual way for a relationship to work in general and an impossible way for a relationship to work when there are kids, careers, deaths and divorces involved.
This meant that when I entered the dating world as a young widow, I entered as someone who had never learned to identify my needs and ask for them to be met. I’ve never had to learn that sometimes people just can’t meet our needs, and that’s not a measure of either person’s value as a partner.
My only experience was that needs and limits were negotiated implicitly, maybe even unconsciously. This meant that when my needs weren’t being met in the relationship, I assumed the problem was in my needs, not the relationship.
Even when I identified and expressed my needs, I struggled to draw a line between when they weren’t being met. Matt’s death – this loss – devastated me. My whole world collapsed. The grief was suffocating. The man I was dating wasn’t my husband, or the father of my kids, or someone I’d spent a decade building a life with, but he was the first person I’d fully left. enter my heart. I didn’t know if my heart could survive another loss.
As a result of all of this, I spent a lot of time convincing myself that I didn’t need more and that I didn’t mind that we weren’t moving forward. I found excuses for times when words didn’t match actions, and rationalized hurt feelings. (As the massive incompatibility gaps in our relationship became clearer, I suspect he was going through similar mental gymnastics, but his story is not mine.)
Eventually, the problems grew too big to ignore. The relationship that started with a spark during the early days of the pandemic ended with a whimper during a late night phone call.
The deep grief came back with a vengeance, and I felt like Matt was dead once again, but this time I couldn’t be mad at fate or the universe. It was my choice to open up to love and my choice to walk away from it.
The despair seemed endless. The resilience and strength I had been praised for in the days following Matt’s death seemed nowhere to be found. My body and mind couldn’t tell the difference between losing my husband and losing my boyfriend, although logically I knew my reaction was out of proportion to the reality. Anyone who knows grief knows that it lives in the body and does not respond well to logical thought.
In the depths of this desperation, I even allowed myself to believe that I had exhausted all my resilience and strength, that we only receive a limited amount in a lifetime. But resilience is not a finite resource. It is neither circumstantial nor temporary. It’s something that just gets stronger with every use, like a muscle.
The resilience was there in the moments after the breakup when my lungs caught their breath despite the tightness in my chest. The resilience was there when my mind whispered the word safe when I was struggling with the uncertainty of tomorrow. The resilience was there, just as before, helping me find reasons to believe in hope, love and light.
My first post-Matt breakup also taught me a valuable lesson about the pressure I was putting on myself since my husband died. Over the past few years, every choice seemed monumental to me, and I lived in constant fear of taking a wrong step. Somehow, I had convinced myself that if I failed—if I made the wrong choice—then the life my husband had helped me build would implode. No doubt this mindset was taken into account when I consistently rejected my own needs to maintain the relationship.
But then we broke up. And was it good. My children were fine. I was good. Life went on and I was gifted with the realization that I had the right to stumble after the loss. I was allowed to try a path and then change course if it didn’t work anymore. I was even allowed to follow a completely wrong path. There was no imminent “or” if I made a mistake or failed. The truth is, in most cases, we have more of a chance of creating a life we love.
In the end, I realized that I had to forgive myself for my mistakes, real or perceived. I did the best I could with the information I had, and now I know better. Now I’m one step closer to creating the life I want to live.
That’s precious on its own, but it also led me to this realization – one my young widowed heart knew but didn’t want to admit. It’s this: In love, loss is always right on the other side of always. It’s out of our control.
No matter how hard we hold on, how many doctors we call for help, or how desperately we ignore problems, we can’t control how or when someone leaves our lives. The universe can be cruel like that, but it can also be charming and worth the risk.
Breakups are hard whether you’re 20 or 39. They are especially complicated when you come out with a layer of grief in your heart. But if you can find the lessons, the breakups can also serve as a bridge, bringing you a little closer to the life you were meant to live.
Understanding this is perhaps the greatest lesson of all.
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