I got the call about my husband having been in an accident, my mind went a few places at once. There was part of my brain that was thinking, ‘Well, we’ll have to get the car fixed after I pick him up,’ even as the rest of me was raging at the sure knowledge of what was coming next. I had just gotten home from work and had opened a bottle of wine for us, and suddenly, my world was shattered. With just the innocent ringing of my phone.”
“In the morning, I woke up, and she didn’t. An aneurysm in the middle of the night. I was sleeping next to her for hours after she died. I don’t even remember if I kissed her goodnight.”
When a loved one dies, everything you know is turned upside down. Whether the person is a spouse or partner, boyfriend or girlfriend, and whether you have been together for decades or months, life changes. What you had planned is gone. The Christmas you had imagined with the grandkids in some near or distant future will always remain a memory. And despite that, your life goes on, with its need for companionship, love, and intimacy.
Dating after losing a loved one is one of the hardest things you can do. You are opening yourself up to another person, knowing that loss is still a possibility. You may feel that you are betraying the memory of the person you love. You may feel you are being unfair to the new person because they aren’t the person you originally intended to spend your life with. All these feelings are normal. Dating after death is an emotional minefield, but you can get through it.
What You Need to Know About Dating After Death
“After Sarah died, I had friends ask me if I was ready to start dating every week or so. They were nice but persistent. After I started dating, I had other friends ask me if I was sure if I was ready, or if it was too soon. There was no win.”
The first thing that you need to know is that there is no appropriate timeline. In the beginning, you will almost certainly be so overcome with grief and filled with loss that you feel there is no room for dating. But time has a way of making room, or making memories out of the vivid, and you might start to have feelings that indicate you’re ready to date—a fluttering butterfly when a man on the street makes lingering eye contact, for example. This could be six months, or it could be years. Grief is idiosyncratic and intense, and it is different for everyone. For some, especially older adults who suddenly find themselves alone for the first time in years, it can lead to depression. For others, it is a spur to keep on living. You can’t let anyone tell you what the “right” thing to do is when it comes to dating. (When it comes to mental or physical health, outside advice is often warranted though).
When you start dating, one question that comes up is how open you have to be to your date. It’s a difficult question, because every relationship is different. The only real guideline is that you have to offer your new partner honesty. That doesn’t mean saying you are a widow on your Tinder profile, or talking about the funeral over appetizers on the first date. But when relationship history comes up, as it always does in a relationship, you should be honest. The death is part of who you are, and trying to hide it doesn’t make sense for anyone. The person you are dating has a right to know that you have been hurt, and have sorrow and memory that might be different from their experience.
They should know this because, in some ways, there is no timeline for “getting over it.” Dating doesn’t mean you stop loving or missing a person, or imagining life if they were still alive. Even if you are happy, thoughts of the old partner can come back. This is normal. We are human, not computers. We can’t shove emotions into compartments that we only open up when we want to. It’s far more complex than that.
That doesn’t mean that you should make comparisons, though, between your deceased and new love. That’s not fair. But your new partner should also be willing to accept that there will always be part of you that is dealing with loss, and he or she won’t be a perfect fit for that hole because no two people are alike. But that is true in any situation. People are strange and difficult creatures, and every relationship has tension. As long as you are open with what you are feeling, and respect that your partner has a right to sometimes be jealous of a ghost—a perfectly human reaction—you can work things out.
If the presence of a dead love can’t be worked out, the relationship maybe isn’t right. And that’s fine. There are things that drive apart most relationships. The ones that work don’t do so because they are perfect. They do so because the people in them are willing to work through problems and respectful enough of the other person to do so constructively.
“I don’t know if we’re getting married. We both suffered a loss—we met in a support group. But we love each other and have helped each other grow. I know that he sometimes needs to think of her, and I sometimes need to remember him. But you know what? That’s part of any relationship. Everyone has a past. You understand how that past made the person you love who they are, and you walk with it. That’s all we can do.”
The most important thing to remember is that you have a right to be happy. It isn’t disrespectful to your dead love to want to be happy again. After all, he or she loved you, and part of love is wanting the object of your affection to feel joy in life. We are social creatures. Life takes strange and funny—and sometimes terrible and tragic—terms, but at the end, you are still you, a creature who needs love.
We sometimes think it is romantic never to date again. And if you are that way, that is fine, because you have the right to live your life the way you want. But it isn’t a failure, nor is it a betrayal, to feel that first spark of romance with someone new, to date, to fall in love, and to be intimate, after the death of your love. As long as you approach it with honesty toward yourself and your partners, you can move forward. The past will always be a part of you. That doesn’t mean the future is closed off.
If you’re dealing with the death of a spouse or partner and need some guidance, advisors at KEEN.com can help.