I get that this title is obscure, but stay with me!
Out for dinner this week with a group of work associates I hadn’t seen in some time but have known for over a decade, I was asked how things were with my “new bloke”. I was a bit flustered as I was sure my co-worker knew I was widowed. To be clear, this wasn’t flirtatious, or creepy, and it was in the context of my having mentioned that I was off to the theatre the following day. I explained that there wasn’t anyone, and started to explain that my husband had died - oh I knew about Chris, the colleague said, obviously now feeling a bit awkward - I don’t know why I thought you had someone new, I guess I just assumed…
I understood where he was coming from. In July this year I will have been widowed for as long as I was married (although not for as long as we were together). As I was told countless times after Chris died, I am young enough to do this all again. The consensus seems to be that as I am reasonable to look at, have a good sense of humour, and am mostly fun to be around, there’s no reason why I should be single. I have been asked many times why I’m not dating (which I find wildly inappropriate!) and my stock reply has been that I’m not ready, or that I’m open to it but have no strong urge to go out of my way to find it, or that dating apps fill me with horror!
Dating after being widowed is a minefield, and everyone has an opinion.
Judgements abound, about whether you’ve moved on too quickly, or not quickly enough. As far as other people are concerned there is no goldilocks zone of "just right" (you see what I did there?!) In-laws can react badly and relationships can be damaged in the judgement-fest that follows the young, widowed and dating. Having not experienced any of this personally the only thing I have to say is that it is absolutely nobody’s business. You don’t know how you will respond to the death of your spouse or partner until it happens to you. And there is absolutely no correlation between how much you loved your late partner and how long it takes for you to begin a new relationship.
There is also a double standard. Alongside the judgement upon how quickly you start dating again is an expectation that until you have met somebody new you haven’t really “healed”, or that meeting someone new is the end of your widowed period and should therefore be your goal. I found this message in the first two books that I read on being widowed and I decided not to read any more!
I think that being widowed is more than just a status, it’s a life experience. You can never stop being a widow - even marrying again, you were still widowed. Meeting someone new does not cancel out the grief you carry for the person you loved, nor does it wipe the memory of the time you had or of their death.
My experience of widowhood has been largely about grief, but has also been about rediscovering who I am, learning to be self sufficient and independent.
Unpicking from “me and Chris” the bits of me that are wholly me, and the bits that were really Chris. Learning how to still have those aspects that Chris brought out of me, even when he isn’t here to say the things I need to hear. When we say that someone brings out the best in us, it implies that those things must be there under the surface- how do we continue to honour that and express it without their tending and encouragement? Even deciding which of my future plans and dreams were really mine and which were Chris’s and I was just happy to go along with - or which were only going to be fun if we did them together - has also been an important process.
Before you judge a widow for moving on too quickly/too slowly in your opinion, consider this.
Finding love again after being widowed requires a great deal of strength and courage.
Having loved and lost, loving again carries a risk of loss again that feels more real, more inevitable than it did the first time round. When we say “until death…” in the wedding vows we all assume we mean until we grow old and die together. Once widowed we know what this really means; one of us will outlive the other. We have experienced the pain of loss, the courage it takes to go on. Alternatively, embarking on a new relationship could mean heartbreak if it doesn’t work out, triggering a whole new cycle of grief, not only for the new relationship but also for the one we were widowed from (for a start we wouldn't be in this position if...). There is also guilt to contend with. Having said that, if we have had a good and loving relationship cut short by death we also know the joy and happiness that is achievable if we find love again.
Similarly, being alone takes courage and resilience.
Being widowed can be a lonely business, and the craving for companionship, touch, someone to tell about your day - or just feeling like you matter most to another living human can be overwhelming at times. Equally, independence, making your own choices and decisions, and not having to compromise can be liberating.
It’s not fair to tell a young widow that “they would want you to be happy” in one breath and then dictate whether, how and when they should date in the next.
My colleague, who wasn’t being judgemental, was obviously embarrassed by his faux pas over dinner so I put him at ease, by telling him that I wasn’t looking, but I hadn’t ruled it out, and then explaining how the support group that I belong to means I am never short of people to do things with. My theatre trip was with a parent from my daughter’s class. I’m going out for a meal on Valentines day, I told him - it’s just that it’s with a group of 10-15 other widows and widowers - and we’re going to have a great night out!