I was one of the lucky ones. I met Matt, my husband, when I was 22 years old. Fresh out of college, not a true heartbreak to my name, he was my first real boyfriend. I married him, and we had a fairy-tale life. Until he was diagnosed with an aggressive brain cancer, and our world fell apart. He died less than two years later. Now I’m dating — for the first time in my life. At 39 years old.
I dipped my toe into the online dating world about 18 months after Matt died. At first I looked for Matt in every profile — obviously he wasn’t there, but guilt and grief often were.
When the pandemic shut the world down, dating apps became a way to simply connect with other single parents who needed an occasional adult conversation. When I matched with a man I was interested in, creating a relationship didn’t even seem possible. But chatting on the app turned into meeting for outdoor walks while maintaining a 6-foot distance, which turned into entering each other’s pandemic bubbles.
While the world was coming to a standstill, we were taking steps forward. It was my first serious post-loss relationship, and the forced slow pace made it feel safe.
For a long while, the limitations of dating during a pandemic insulated us. We got to know each other without the demands of real life. Then life began to return to normal — a new normal — and slowly issues began to arise. Small issues with respect to communication styles and the direction of the relationship eventually turned into ones that were impossible to ignore.
Still, I did, largely because I didn’t know better.
My marriage had never required conscious effort. Matt and I had grown into adults together and somehow navigated each other’s needs and boundaries by instinct. Which is an unusual way for a relationship to operate in general and an impossible way for a relationship to operate when there are kids, careers, deaths and divorces involved.
It meant that when I entered the dating world as a young widow, I entered as someone who’d never learned how to identify my needs and ask for them to be met. I never had to learn that sometimes people simply can’t meet our needs, and it’s not a measure of either person’s worth as a partner.
My only experience was that needs and boundaries were negotiated implicitly, maybe even subconsciously. It meant when my needs weren’t being met in the relationship, I assumed the problem was in my needs, not in the relationship.
Even when I did identify and voice my needs, I struggled to draw a boundary around the times they weren’t met. Matt’s death — that loss — devastated me. My entire world crumbled. The grief was suffocating. The man I was dating wasn’t my husband, or my children’s father or someone I’d spent a decade building a life with, but he was the first person I’d fully let into my heart. I didn’t know whether my heart could survive another loss.
As a result of all of that, I spent a lot of time convincing myself that I didn’t need more and that I didn’t mind that we weren’t moving forward. I made excuses for times when words didn’t match actions, and I rationalized away hurt feelings. (As the huge incompatibility gaps in our relationship became clearer, I suspect he was going through similar mental gymnastics, but his story is not mine to tell.)
Eventually, the issues got too big to ignore. The relationship that started with a spark during the earliest days of the pandemic ended with a whimper during a late-night phone call.
The deep grief returned with a vengeance, and it felt like Matt had died all over again, but this time I couldn’t be angry at fate or the universe. It was my choice to open myself to love and my choice to walk away from it.
The despair felt never-ending. The resilience and strength I’d been praised for in the days after Matt’s death seemed nowhere to be found. My body and mind couldn’t distinguish between the loss of my husband and the loss of my boyfriend, even though logically I knew my reaction was disproportionate to reality. Anyone who knows grief knows that it lives in the body, and it doesn’t respond well to logical thinking.
In the depths of that despair, I even allowed myself to believe I’d used up all my resilience and strength, that we’re only allotted so much in a lifetime. But resilience isn’t a finite resource. It isn’t circumstantial or temporary. It’s something that only gets stronger with each use, like a muscle.
Resilience was there in the post-breakup moments when my lungs took another breath despite the tightness in my chest. Resilience was there when my mind whispered the word safe during the times I struggled with the uncertainty of tomorrow. Resilience was there, like it had been before, helping me find reasons to believe in hope and love and light.
My first post-Matt breakup also taught me a valuable lesson about the pressure I’d been putting on myself since my husband’s death. For the last few years, every choice felt monumental, and I lived in constant fear of making a wrong move. Somehow I’d convinced myself that if I failed — if I made a bad choice — then the life my husband had helped me build would implode. No doubt that mindset factored in when I consistently dismissed my own needs to keep the relationship going.
But then, we broke up. And… it was fine. My children were fine. I was fine. Life continued, and I was gifted the realization that I was allowed to stumble post-loss. I was allowed to try one path and then change course if that stopped working. I was allowed to go down an entirely wrong path even. There was no looming “or else” if I made a mistake or failed. The truth is, in most cases we get more than one shot at creating a life we love.
Ultimately, I realized I needed to forgive myself for my mistakes, real or perceived. I did the best I could with the information I had, and now I know better. Now I’m a step closer to creating the life I want to live.
That’s valuable in itself, but it also led me to this realization — one that my young widow heart knew but didn’t want to admit. It’s this: In love, loss is always just on the other side of forever. It’s out of our control.
No matter how tightly we hold on, how many doctors we call for help or how desperately we ignore issues, we can’t control how or when someone leaves our lives. The universe can be cruel like that, but it can also be lovely and worth the risk.
Breakups are hard, whether you’re 20 or 39. They’re especially complicated when you’re dating with a layer of grief in your heart. But if you can find the lessons, breakups can also serve as a bridge, getting you one step closer toward living the life you were meant to live.
Maybe understanding that is the biggest lesson of all.
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