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.
Sarah Keast is a writer and activist, raising awareness around addiction and mental health. You can hear more from Sarah on her TEDx talk here, and on her blog, Adventures in Widowed Parenting.
I have been on a date with a man that lost his wife 2 years ago. He has 2 small children and a busy career. I don’t want to rush into anything but I’m scared he can’t commit to another relationship and I’ll be hurt m. We had a wonderful time and he said he wants things to progress naturally. He’s dated before me but felt pressured by the last woman to make time even though he has 2 babies
What do I do?
I have started talking to a man who only just lost his wife at the beginning of November last year. We have been talking since January and just had our second date almost two months after our first. He tells me he ca wait to see me again but then when the time comes he always has something come up. He has two teenagers and owns his own business so I try to be bad understanding as possible, but wonder if this is a sign he’s not read or is it just him learning to juggle. We have talked some about his loss and I have reassured him that I’m here for him and when he’s ready I would love to know more about her. I just don’t want him to feel pressured and I feel bad when I ask can I see you. What can I do so that I don’t make him feel pressured but to let him know I do want to spend time with him?
Hey Kristy, I have been talking with a widower for a little over month. His wife passed in April this year after a 3 yr battle with cancer. I’ve not been out with him yet but we are supposed to meet in a few weeks for a weekend together (we live far apart). I have moments that I think this is going to be great, finally a man that knows how to love and be in a relationship. Other moments I am worried I will never measure up to his late wife. Apparently, she was wonderful and loved by everyone. One minute I am excited about our trip and the next anxiety and worry kick in. I have been through 2 divorces and the fear of being hurt is real. I do not want to be a band-aid and then tossed aside. Since you posted this in Feb., are you currently involved with the widower? If so, how does he meet your needs for companionship?
Tell him exactly that. And no he’s not ready. If someone is married a long period and they lose their spouse due to death,they will forever mourn, they will have survivors guilt, and you will never be first.
Absolutely 100% the truth. Don’t rush into anything. I am dating a widow of almost 10 years, we have dated for 3 years, and he wants us to move in together in his familial home, however he still has a shrine and dozens of pictures of he and his late wife as a couple, and her alone and with her family and their adopted children. I get keeping up family pictures of she and the children, but he shuts down to any notion of change even though I would just like the couple pictures at the least to be displayed in albums so I don’t feel like I’m in another woman’s home. It seems best I feel at this point for him to keep his home the way he wants and to keep her as the lady of their home. I will stay in my home and continue to visit. I can’t compete with a memory, and I won’t lose my sanity trying to. It hurts because he means the world to me, but if that’s what he needs, then that’s what it is.
Hi, thanks for sharing this. It is nice to have a widow’s point of view.
I have been dating my girlfriend for the past 5 months. She has been in an accident in which her boyfriend died on the spot, 3 years ago.
I also asked her not to forget him and also support her on her grieve moments. I also go with her to the cemetery.
But it is still tough for me. Because I feel shadowed by him, and at times I feel I want to trade places with him, because I feel she would be happier with him.
I just want to accept and I am trying hard but it is difficult, do you have any suggestions how to work on myself please? I love her like I never loved before and I do not want to lose her, especially because of me not understanding her enough.
Tell him exactly that. And no he’s not ready. If someone is married a long period and they lose their spouse due to death,they will forever mourn, they will have survivors guilt, and you will never be first.
I have dated a man that lost his wife 2 months before we started dating, I knew he and his wife for a long time. We have been together 1.6 years and now engaged. We have been through a lot. We don’t live together because I’m a single mother of 3, so we won’t live together until we are married. My only issue is he still has his wife’s ashes at his house, I have gently expressed how he really needs to spread them before we get married but he still hasn’t done anything. I am terrified of ashes, not to mention my kids could spill them and it’s just not good to bring them to a new marriage. How can I remind him to spread them because that’s why I haven’t picked a date yet.
Hi annelize im also in that situation and sometimes he become very scarce as if there is someone else in his life but when i ask him, he always say they broke up.i dont know where we going with this relationship as i love him but he is not commiting and anyway his wife passed 5years back.im worried i might be wasting my time.
What I will suggest is that, you can get closer to his heart by taking care of his kids, I believe you doing that will make him actracted to you
Make sure his priority is a partner first and a mother 2nd. It’s a tough transition and men are more likely to jump into another relationship quickly. Let him know you want to take it slow. If he’s really in love, that won’t be an issue.
What about the other person? I agree with everything you say, and I am sorry for your loss. There is however two parts to a relationship. What happens to your new found love? Doesn’t he have feelings too? I mean to know that he will never be your everything because you still hold a place in your heart he will never be allowed to be, doesn’t he have that right? What are the things you do that makes him feel special? It just seems to me that I find all these articles about the person who lost someone, and never about the person who is “filling” in.
Exactly! I came here to write the same thing! Successful relationships happen when each partner gives 100%.
And, I’m divorced. Does that mean I don’t get the same consideration? I suffered a deep loss, too! My dreams died when my marriage fell apart.
I’m dating a widower, and I love him very much. But I spent the first year of our relationship walking on eggshells, denying any of my needs so that I could be sensitive to his grief (his late wife died 4 years ago). It was VERY unbalanced. When I tried to enforce some basic boundaries (like not talking about her constantly, removing his wedding and other pictures from the living areas of his house, her ashes in the bedroom, etc.) he dumped me.
Fortunately, he reconsidered my requests and realized that if I had held on to my ex-husband in the same ways, he would have been furious. We’re Back together and working through things now.
I’ve learned that those of us who are dating widowers or widows should accept nothing that we wouldn’t accept from any partner, regardless of their circumstances. If a widower/widow can’t be a partner just like he/she was with his late wife/husband, he/she should NOT look for a new partner until he/she can. It’s not fair to an innocent person who deserves to be #1 in someone’s heart.
It REALLY bothers me when I read these kinds of articles that are so incredibly one-sided.
We’ve all experienced pain and loss, and we ALL deserve kindness and consideration.
I so agree with you. My poor young daughter was so affected by my ex widower selfish behaviour. When she saw the wedding and other photos in his house she asked me if she could have my and her dad wedding photo up too. My ex widower was so against it because me and my daughter’s father were divorced and not widowed. It’s just beyond me how widowed people are selfish sometimes. Is that pain so huge that you cannot think anymore, that you have lost all empathy?
God bless you and thank you for this real recount of what we face. I’m dating a widower and last night as we were in the bed talking, I turned my back to him for about five minutes, and when I turned over he was scrolling through his phone which has a file of pictures of his late wife. He was looking through all of the pictures. I’m never verbalized my dismay, I t calmly made gracious comments about how beautiful the pictures were. “He has no I idea, I’m going to dump him right after Christmas. “I’m gorgeous, smart, and self-sufficient. I. don’t have. to. take. this crap. He’s not gonna know what hit him, and I don’t care.
Sounds like you are doing him a favor! Wow! Who wants or needs a woman who is so full of herself and who doesn’t know how to communicate needs or boundaries without being a controlling You. Know. What.
Hi Alisha I am in a similar sitution, it has been a very intense year and the eggshells feeling really does resonate.
I just realised I d like to talk about that with someone in a similar position so let me know if you are available. Thanks.
If she communicated her needs clearly to him, he would call her jelous or insecure. I am not surprised she decided to walk away from him without saying why. Too often widowed do not see their partners’ needs and call them jelous to simply manipulate them to feel shame and guilt.
Thank you for this post. I am dealing with something similar and it’s so comforting to know I’m not alone. Ready to break up with him even though I love him so much – bc it’s just not reciprocated in the way that I need. G-d bless and good luck ❤️
Just wait until your spouse dies , that’s a different animal. No one wakes up abs want to be a widow. I woke up married and went to sleep single . And now I have to wrap my head around that. You can’t , a divorce you still see the individual they are among the living . Try to walk a mile in our shoes , where you have to figure it out and fill a void . It’s not easy , it’s not one sided bc unless you’ve been there you simply don’t and can’t understand. In my opinion, you should test the water before you dive in
I feel you…
Well hurrah!! I’m in a relationship, very new, and he is showering me with love. He expects no special treatment, his wife died 2 years ago.. And he is ready to commit again. Photos are still up, for the kids….. And he had a great marriage. But, he says has found a soul mate like never before with me, and we’re working on that. If he wasn’t ready, I’d have no patience to wait, personally. I’d want him to be ready to engage fully again.
Exactly, you are spot on. All these articles are writem by widowed , who want to have their cake and eat the cake. It seems like your feelings do not matter at all. I don’t recommend considering widowed for a serious relationship. If you want sex and companionship then yes but If you look for love then widowed are mostly incapable to love you trully,no matter how often they will tell you that their heart is big enough to love two people. These are usually very one sided relationships …. they suffer because they can’t have the person they would rather have , and you suffer because you know that they would rather have this other person in their live instead of you. They are not secretive about it and all their actions will prove it every single day. They will hurt you often and intensly with ther innsensitive actions so trauma bonding develops , which will make leaving them very hard and will damage your self esteem and joy of life. Truly , I don’t recommend.
Alisha, truer words were neve spoken. You are 100% correct
So true! I needed to read this! Thank you 🙂
The problem is the attitude you display in your last sentence. You aren’t “filling in” and it is disrespectful to the person you’re with. You’ve already seemed to have entered the relationship with the perception and attitude that you are less than, and unequal to your partner. Because of that, nothing she will ever do will elevate you enough to be satisfied. Understanding doesn’t mean catering to the person nor walking on eggshells. Her heart has more than enough room to give you equal space. But to think you have to be someone’s “everything”……….. is unrealistic and unreasonable.
Amen Brother! I divorced my husband because I was so tired of hearing about Vicky when my name is Carol. It was a very bad experience.
As the widow in a new relationship I can guarantee that someone can be more new “everything”. The competition is dead. The memories are only memories. They are special to me but can’t replace a real person or I wouldn’t be searching. Also, it helps when you make that person your “everything”.
That’s so very true. It’s like everybody has feelings for the widower, but the next person should be loved with reserve or being placed always 2nd best.
TOTALLY AGREE as the “Third person or the Second man in the Relationship”. I was always scrutinized AND CONSTANTLY COMPARED TO her PARAGON OF A MAN, IN EVERY WAY, EVERY pico-SECOND, then told how I wasn’t him.
I gave her and her family ALL OF MY TIME, ENERGY and SUPPORT, yet was always a third class citizen. I was often told one thing, yet punished for following through. She was able to set BOUNDARIES that I didn’t cross, yet never ever accepted or acknowledged mine. I was there for her and her family, yet she never actually ever appreciated it. She was also the queen of circular logic that as an educated professional never worked, BUT in her personal life was paramount. She was ALWAYS JEALOUS OF EVERYONE who her and her dead spouse knew in ANY and EVERY WAY, also other acquaintances.
That’s the wonderful bizarre word I had entered, where the law was whatever, for ONLY that moment. All forms of THERAPY WERE NOT ALLOWED, because of her past experiences with them. Also, the world was either for or against her. There weren’t any forms of middle ground.
love this!!! so true!!
I completely agree with Keith. The new love needs to feel the same love and respect and commitment as the late spouse did. The new love deserves 100% of the widow (er)s heart. If they are still openly grieving then they are not ready to move on. Is who are divorced also have gone through a loss. My marriage died. I did not get married just to get divorced. I had to get past the pain of my divorce and not being wanted in order to give my all to my next relationship . I didn’t have photos up still and tell my new love “my ex made me the person I am today and I don’t want to forget him”. Nobody wants to be second or reminded of a past relationship – no matter how that past relationship ends. It’s just not fair for the other person
Kim this is so true!!
It isn’t that slanted.
It is obvious several of you don’t see your partners as equals and generally think very little of them; otherwise, you would never compare a death of a spouse to having an ex. When a widow or widower makes the choice and is ready to move forward, that new partner will have the same amount of love , respect, and commitment. It’s pretty obvious that many of you went into the relationship believing you’d get the short end of the proverbial stick in the first place. A lot of assumptions are being voiced about what the person thinks or feels. More honest communication is needed, and an effort to try and understand. If that effort is too much…. please don’t bother trying.
Oh please, stop it. Some widowed had such abusive spouses that they are relived by their death. You could be crashed by your break up or divorce(see suicide rates because of break up) and you could be relived by the death of your spouse. It’s more about how much we loved these people or were loved by them rather than how they disappeared from our lives.
This widow was ALL ABOUT THEIR marriage experiences. We were equals but she wasn’t done with her dead husband and made it known quite well.
Choosing Kindness: Love is a very sacred mystery. There is nothing wrong with honestly sharing one’s feelings, if a new love grows you will know. And if there is no chemistry gently move on in a kind and nice way. Love grows when two who are one share the most intimate experiences. Being gentle and kind one should understand a true commitment comes from giving, from caring. A new fire is born, a gift surrounded in prayer and love. Is it not worth your time to say you are the one for me. Choose kindness in everything you say and do, and if he or she is the one, be patient. Finding love is a mystery, a journey forever unknown. Feel the bliss, kindle love.
What a lovely spirit to move through this world.
I was the Best Man, after 13 years of marriage her husband died from cancer. She didn’t date until three later when my wife filed for divorce. I wasn’t ready for a relationship but needed the companionship. It was a perfect match, I knew her husband longer then her and had respect and love for him, our young children got along like siblings. I treated them like my own, she didn’t and mine were influenced by their mother and new husband. When she repainted the house all the same family and wedding pictures went back up. In fact everything had to be like when he left. It was ten years before she got rid of his toothbrush. When the daughter was married, I thought I would walk her down the aisle to represent the spirit of her father. I wasn’t asked and felt like an outcast at the wedding. when mention feeling like second fiddle she claimed she wanted to keep his memory alive for her kids. That didn’t explain why she had to have a picture of him on both nightstands. Then I notice that there were more pictures of him then of me,after our 17 years of relationship. Because of Covid her son had to postpone his wedding and later was married at the court house for direct family, I wasn’t told about it. That was the final straw. A widow doesn’t have the problems of the ex-husband but they do have other baggage!
Please accept my deepest sympathy. You have the right to be angry after investing more time with her than her passed beloved.
Steven: thanks for your wisdom and insight. Regardless of whether you are divorced or widowed I think your comment applies to all of us here. And also to Tricia…good luck in your pursuit of the next phase of your life!
Some of the commenters here seem have forgotten the joy of the loving relationship they experienced in their previous chapters.
I think a widow or widower would be the *first* person to encourage a divorcee to celebrate the loves and losses from the earlier parts of their lives.
I think most of us (and yes, I am a widower) would give plenty of leeway to the telling of old stories, sharing of old pictures, old wounds, old challenges and old triumphs from your earlier lives, no matter the circumstances that caused you to move forward on an unexpected path.
Memories don’t define the new relationship going forward but I think it is healthy for both parties to acknowledge all that has come before our mid-life detours (which for some of us were obviously unexpected).
I think that some folks don’t want to share that previous part of their life because the disdain, dysfunction and contempt at the end has overshadowed what was once (hopefully) beautiful.
Are there selfish widows and widowers out there?
Of course there are!
That characteristic exists in many people, including divorcees…why wouldn’t it exist in all groups?
If you are dating a widow or widower and don’t feel your needs are being met, don’t do that other person any favors…address it, try to work it out and move on if your voice isn’t being heard.
But to focus on generalities of “selfishness” and ascribe them to an entire group does a disservice to all of the mature and compassionate adults who are looking to share love and companionship.
Most of us widows and widowers already proved once that we were good at love.
And just watch: Many of us will do so again.
Just because your marriage ended in death it doesn’t prove that you are a decent man and a potential good husband. The only thing which proves to a new woman that you are a good man for her is how your treat her and how she feels in relationship with you not how you feel about your late wife. Your past relationship with your late wife is irrelevant with your new one. It’s a bit like believing in a myth that men who love their mothers and treat their mothers with absolute devotion would be amazing husbands. Many women were screwed by this belief ending up with mamma’s boys. In a dating situation we should always look at the character of the person and their motives and not their relationship status. The widowed man who loudly expresses his undying love for late wife and his motives are to always keep her memory alive, never marry again because he believes the love of his live is gone would never be as good as divorcee who wants to truly start again believing that the best love of his life has not came yet. I believe that many widowed people are good for companionship and sex but if you look for true love, commitment or marriage divorcees or singles are much better, they would not throw their past loves at your face every day.
I believe we all suffer, if you are widowed or divorced. We have all experience a great loss and a big change in our lives. Please never down play being divorced is less painful. You lose you family, your home, etc etc. I am a currently dating a widow and have been very sympathetic and understanding. However, I don’t feel I need to sit there and be subjected to large portraits of him and his late wife holding each other while he tells me how much he loves me. No one is asking for you to forget the one that you loved, however, you should be sensitive to the one your currently dating, especially if it’s now been a few years.
Wow! So many comments by ppl who have dated a widow(er) and the difficulties they faced.
I think this type of relationship has it’s own set of problems and there is just not enough advice out there regarding how to navigate this. We turn to these articles hoping to find a fresh perspective for our situation, but are repeatedly told the same myths: how a W is a good catch simply becos they already were in a loving relationship (what about the many that weren’t?); That we have to be kind to the point of sainthood (which I typically am) and that we should accept that the late spouse will ALWAYS be a part of them, including the ongoing grief. That if we have a problem with any of this then somehow it’s on us and we need to be more secure within ourselves… and on it goes.
This is problematic for sooo many reasons. The main one being, when you become your partner’s ‘therapist’ it kills passion. Just look up Esther Perel on familiarity. And then to add insult to injury, you are unfairly compared to the late spouse even if subconsciously. Moreover, when you become their grief support, you are implicitly saying, yes, this other person you are missing is more important than me. And if you feel second best as a result of all of this, then somehow you are irrational. Your own emotional reactions are not validated and you feel ashamed to even express them, because society tells you that the widowed person has to be dealt with sensitively and their grief comes first.
So let’s dispel some myths. The late partner was often not perfect. Sometimes
the marriage was in trouble before they died. Why aren’t widowers advised to work through their issues about their past b4 dating again? Same as a divorcee. And not just therapy about their grief. And maybe don’t start dating if you are still longing for your late partner on a daily basis. That’s just cruel to the new person. If you can’t give your heart 100%, then tell the new person. Don’t lie to them and yourself. Say the truth. I’m not capable of 100% commitment and don’t know if I ever will be. That way, a prospective partner can choose.
Woodlark, so true. I wonder how many of these sainted widows/widowers were actually the reason the wife/husband died so early. Stress can cause heart attacks, cancers, car accidents, suicides etc . How many of them are actually evil narcists pretending the pain to get attention and support of any kind? I feel sorry for truly grieving widowed but the huge number of those psychopaths who use the Late husbands /wives to inflict pain on new partners put the bad name on them all so people are too scared to date them . The first time I realised that he actually did things on purpose to hurt me I knew I was dealing with someone absolutely broken, mentally unbalanced and it made moving on easier. Few months later I met another widower and it was so different from day one. First one narcisstic drama king with shrines on social media and his house and and many other BS using his poor late wife to manipulate people and then the other widower-mentally strong, amazing character, no need for amusing people with shrines. We would go and celebrate her memory in private sometimes and only because I wanted it…and I wanted because he absolutely didn’t expected me to live my life in the shadow of his previous love. He actually helped me to heal the wound of being used by the first widower. Always look at the character not marital status.
Some of this rings true, some does not. Having been widowed myself about two years ago now, after a long marriage that was never more than average, sometimes quite bad, I am now dating a widower. In the beginning our conversations centred almost exclusively around his late wife, as he had never talked to anybody about his loss, so I was the first to really listen.
A couple of months later she’s no longer such a big part of our life, and although he still has a lot of her stuff in the house, he also has a lot of other stuff, he’s just a hoarder in general. It doesn’t really bother me, it’s just stuff.
We get on well and see each other almost every day. I am not looking too far ahead and am more or less living in the moment, enjoying what I have, which is a lot more than I had this time last year.
Time will tell what will become of us, but for now, good enough is good enough.