The decision to start dating again after I lost my husband of 15 years to brain cancer has brought about a lot of angst and heartache, not just for me, but for my kids.
I found myself desperate for advice in this somewhat unique situation. Searching online for “widows” and “dating” brings you to online dating sites or articles for elderly people, but not many resources on how to begin dating again or what to say to your kids on the subject. By no means am I an expert but here are my insights on this precarious subject.
Dating after loss
Around the one-year mark, much sooner than I imagined, I found myself falling for someone. Dating again was a fuzzy, far off thought that my late husband and I had discussed when he was alive but we knew he was terminal. He wanted me to be happy and to find someone…albeit not too soon, he had joked! My perspective as a new widow was influenced greatly by losing my dad in my teens and also watching my sister lose her husband suddenly. Both losses taught me that life can and will keep going even while you grieve intensely.
I made it my mission to ‘keep going at life’ every day by doing what I call my ‘grief work’: practicing gratitude and self-care and reading about resilience. My ‘work’ included joining a bereavement group, which I had no expectation for other than as an outlet to hopefully find solace. Little did I imagine I would eventually begin dating one of the members. He too lost his spouse far too soon and understands my loss and pain intuitively. Our extended networks are thrilled by this connection and the beauty of the relationship unfolding is not lost on any of us. The support has been amazing, however, only one important person has protested the relationship openly: my daughter.
Here are the four things I learned as a widowed parent that might help you through your struggle as well.
1. Dating again is confusing for everyone
Even if you take your time, dating can be scary and you may feel disloyal to your deceased spouse or seriously out of your comfort zone. My philosophy on this is similar to what people say about having kids, there is never a right time.
In my case, meeting someone happened earlier than anticipated, but I trusted that if things felt right, it was worth a shot. While I struggled with the timing and my insecurities, my daughters experienced their own emotional upheaval. I had not really considered that dating would be much more complex than when I met their dad. I felt compelled to be honest with my kids immediately and told them that I would make mistakes because all of this was new to me too. I explained that I wanted to be respectful of their feelings, but ultimately, decisions I made about dating would be mine and I expected them to treat anyone I dated with respect, as they would any of my friends.
Apprehension around your new situation is natural for all of you. Developing feelings for a new person is so complex and you may feel conflicted. It is incredibly hard to reconcile the exciting feelings for someone new with the tremendous grief you also carry.
Giving myself permission for the feelings to co-exist has been key. Developing feelings for someone new is ok, as is continuing to love and cherish your deceased partner. These are huge concepts for any adult to grasp. Imagine, how perplexing these ideas are for your kids? My daughter has struggled thinking that I am replacing her dad. It didn’t help her to know he wanted me to be happy and love again.
Something that did comfort her a little was the idea that when I had her, I initially wondered how I could ever love a second baby like the first? Parents of more than one child know that the minute you have your second, your capacity to love becomes immeasurable. This helped my daughter begin to realize that love is not finite.
2. Positive side effects may include modelling resilience
By all accounts, I am modelling courage and resilience by choosing to date again. It doesn’t always feel that way though, it often feels reckless and selfish. “Grief for children is incredibly complicated. The tendency is to protect them from all further hurt,” says Dr. Joy Andres-Lemay, Psychologist, PhD, CPsych. Protection was my first thought when my daughter first screamed, “I hate him!” Imagining my happiness causing her pain felt like a dagger in my heart. However, it is likely not my new relationship, “…but the disconnect, she feels from the loss of her father that she is protesting”, says Janet Goodhoofd, MSW, RSW. My first thought was that I better disconnect from any notions of dating –pronto! Why would I risk hurting my kids when I was scared too? Giving them what they wanted would have simplified things greatly, but we all know, doing the easy thing is rarely the best parenting decision.
This thing, dating again after losing the love of my life, is intensely difficult but is also surprisingly joyful. Denying my emotions to placate my kids’ unresolved feelings won’t help them. The situation has provoked discomfort for all of us but has pushed me to persevere and continue working through their grief with them which I think honours our love for their dad.
“The age and stage of development hugely affect the way children grieve and how they may internalize a loss like this,” says Goodhoofd. My daughter’s outburst revealed feelings that directly relate to our loss. Setting a gentle boundary, I reminded her that it is not ok to be rude to my friends, but that I understood her feelings of fear and anger. Validating your children’s feelings doesn’t mean you have to give in to everything. “It is actually comforting and settling for kids to feel like the same rules apply, as before the loss,” says Dr. Andres-Lemay.
3. You’ll either feel like Mrs. Incredible or a Tightrope Walker
Sharing yourself is one of the trickiest parts of this new equation. Opening up to someone after experiencing devastating loss is scary enough, now combine that with feeling stretched to capacity as a solo-parent. The reality is you can’t do everything. There is only one of you to handle everything previously done by two and you are also trying to build a new relationship. Balancing these roles is extremely hard. Often, I feel like I am letting everyone down because there is just not enough of me to go around. Even though it feels counterintuitive, taking care of myself allows me to take better care of everyone else. By no means do I have the answer but striking a balance between all our needs is my goal.
“Kids have a hard time understanding the complexities of adult relationships, love, loss and identity, so continuing to show your kids love, support and reassurance will help them to feel some comfort with your new relationship,” says Dr. Deborah Shaw, Psychologist, PhD, C.Psych. Dating someone new introduces tons of new concepts to your children. Where they fit into the mix, will likely be their main concern, no matter what their developmental stage. A perceived disconnection between kids and their surviving parent can also be balanced with lots of reassurance, which in the case of my daughter, means lots of cuddles and one on one connection time. “Helping your kids understand that you will always love them even if you are sharing that love with someone new is key if they are struggling.”
4. Dating is not what it used to be!
Widows don’t have the time away from our kids that divorced parents have and it can be tricky to fit in meeting anyone, let alone actually developing a relationship. Your parenting priorities will likely take precedent over time together. Although I am not a fan of multi-tasking, walking the dog with my boyfriend is often one of my favourite date activities because it combines time together, exercise and something I would do anyway, without taking away from family time. New relationships need nurturing and getting alone time together isn’t easy, but if you like the person, you will find quality in the time you make for each other.
Repeat after me: “I am going to make lots of mistakes”
Forgiving your mistakes has probably helped you adjust to single parenting. Making more mistakes is unavoidable because you’ve probably…never done this before. Remember, you are not the only widow to fumble back onto the dating scene. Allowing your heart to open up again and accommodate more love is one of the bravest, most resilient things you can model for your children. Be patient with them as they take two steps forward and one step back, learning to open up again too.