In our Your Stories series, people who have lost a loved one share their unique perspective through essays, poetry and artwork. This week, Sarah Keast shares her tips for dating someone whose partner has died.
On my wedding day, I promised my husband I would stand by him until death parted us. I didn’t expect death to part us only 11 years later. I expected death to part us when we were old, wrinkled and grey – not young (ish), partially-wrinkled and slightly-grey. I never expected to be back on the dating scene in my 40s, with two young kids at home and a dead husband in my heart.
Nevertheless, there I was: a young widow, downloading Tinder and Bumble and wondering what the hell to put in my dating profile. I did know I wanted to identify myself as a widow in my profile. I wanted the world to know what I was bringing to the table (beyond my wit and charm and my decidedly plump mom bod, that is).
But what should you prepare for, if the person you like has lost their partner? Here are some things you should know if you’re dating a widow or widower…
1. Be curious
One of the best gifts you can give a widow or widower is to ask questions about their loved one, and to listen to their stories about him or her.
When my boyfriend and I were newly dating, he said to me, “I want you to know you can talk about Kevin as much as you need to or want to with me. He is a part of your life and your daughters’ lives, and I don’t want to change that.”
I could have kissed him! It was so freeing to know that this new person in my life was okay with the dead guy in my life. So ask. Listen. Get to know their person.
2. Be gentle
Losing a partner is traumatic. Your new love interest may have been to hell and back leading up to the death of their partner. Losing someone to addiction, or suicide, or watching your partner die a slow death from cancer is not easy. It brings with it a multitude of confusing and complicated feelings. These feelings do not go away when a widow or widower starts dating.
There may also be things that trigger them. Tiny things that can cause an emotional reaction that has nothing to do with you, but that you nevertheless have to bear the brunt of. For example, many widows and widowers will frantically text or call their new partner when an initial text or phone call is not returned in a reasonable time frame.
Why? Our last experience of a text or phone call not being returned was when our partner died and we did not yet know it. Our brains know that most likely your phone died or you fell asleep, but our hearts are screaming, “but what if he is dead?!”
So, be gentle. We know these behaviours are irrational, but it will take time for these wounds to heal.
3. Be supportive
The wounds of loss do not heal overnight. The grief I carry will never go away, but my life is getting bigger around it. My boyfriend understands the weight of my grief, and does not pressure me to “get over it” or “move on”. He simply holds my hand, hugs me and wipes my tears away when a wave of grief comes.
Waves of grief will come! Sometimes obvious things like holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries bring them on. Other times, it’s random stuff like trips to Home Depot, getting your kids report card or watching a certain TV show. They will come and then they will pass. Your gentle, supportive presence will be your partner’s anchor as they navigate these waves.
4. Be understanding
Profound loss is life changing and the grief that comes with it is everlasting. If you have not yet been through profound loss, expanding your understanding of what grief feels like will do wonders for your relationship with a widow or widower. Pressuring us to move on or to get over it is not helpful. Understanding that we will never get over it, but we will survive and thrive again is far more helpful.
Nora McInerny, an author and a podcaster, has a powerful TED talk on how we don’t move on from grief, but we do move forward with it. It is worth watching.
5. Be grateful
Your new love has had his or her heart broken wide open. They have survived indescribable pain and suffering. This warrior you now love has learned priceless life lessons far earlier than most. They know how precious and important each moment is.
He or she stood by their partner as they died, and they showed up for that person in the face of many horrors. They now will show up for you with that same fierceness and love. They know the most important thing in life is connection and love. They know life is short and can be lost in an instant.
Be grateful you are with someone who has the strength to endure the worst and who now has the wisdom and gratitude that comes from surviving this pain.
6. Be confident
Despite the fact that a widow or widower may talk about their late partner a lot, have their photo displayed or feel waves of grief regularly, they have chosen to be with you. They have chosen to let you into their wounded, grieving heart. They have chosen to open themselves up and to risk loss again, to be with you.
Do not feel threatened or overshadowed by their dead person. You are a safe place for their grief and a safe place for their love. They did not make this choice lightly. Be confident in their love for you.
Yes, your new partner brings their dead person to your relationship. Their relationship with their dead person contributed to the person they are today so cultivate gratitude for the path they have walked, as it brought them to you. They also bring a fierceness, a strength and a depth of soul that is rare and unparalleled.
Tread gently, carefully and with patience. You will be rewarded with a relationship that is deep in connection, love, trust and support.