dating after the death of a spouse

I don’t get much feedback from widowed people on the grief-related articles and posts I write. There are times when my blog stats show an unusually high level of activity for the oldest posts or those that are specifically tagged young widow or death of a spouse. I get a lot of searches on dating and remarriage in general or specifically relating to widowhood. But no one comments and I never know who these readers are or what brought them to my blog.

Sometimes I get emails though and usually they detail the person’s loss and what they are currently experiencing. I always write back. I remember what it was like when I was the only young widowed person I knew. It’s very lonely and isolating. It’s a near constant out of body experience in some ways. At least it was for me.

Which is the point of this post. I only know widowhood and remarriage from my own point of view. I can only tell you how I felt, what I did and what the outcomes of my actions and beliefs were. There is a list of the most common touch-points where losing a spouse is concerned, but that’s all it is. A list. Not even carved in stone or handed to people by an ordained prophet.

Rob likes to half joke that most rules and laws are merely guidelines and that the thoughtful person is wise to remember that when applying or ignoring them. My years in the classroom back this idea up for the most part. Rules/laws are designed for people who don’t – for whatever reason – think before acting or speaking and for those who are heedless of the fact that the world is made up of a lot of other people whose existences should be credited and considered.

I received an email the other day from a widowed person who’d read my piece on DoubleX about remarriage. This person was recently widowed this past summer and found him/herself in a relationship now with an old friend. Not something anticipated or sought, it just happened.

Back on Ye Ole Widda Board there is a particularly annoying woman who rails against the notion that a relationship can simply happen without conscious effort on the part of two people – but since she is mostly full of her own self-importance, I will almost respectfully disagree. I know when I was a truly single girl, I hated being told that relationships come – not to those who wait, but to those who aren’t really paying any attention at all. I still don’t like to admit that for most people, this is true. All that’s required for a relationship to “just happen” is an openness to the idea and being in the right place at the right time. This widowed person was at a social gathering, struck up an old acquaintance and soon found there was more to be had. And that indeed does happen though I think that love is a place where two people land after the initial excitement and overall wonderlicious giddiness rather than someplace they fall.

This person wanted to know if there were others who’ve experienced the arrival of a new love on the heels of the loss of a spouse. And I assured him/her that it has happened. Some worked out. Some didn’t. The odds are the same for the widowed as the never widowed really. Being widowed young isn’t a special handicap, it’s just a different life experience than most people are handed these days.

I was telling Rob about the email and I admitted that I am not comfortable giving advice on the subject of falling in love again or remarrying. A shocking admission, especially to those who think they know me from the widda board days. Back then I was quick to defend those who dated and seriously recoupled, but not for the reasons people ascribed to me. And it really had nothing to do with my own situation or a belief that remarriage was the gold standard for healing. Grief isn’t healed. It’s incorporated into who you are. And if you believe that being partnered is important for you to be the best you can be then that is your truth. Why it would matter to anyone else is beyond me.

In my reply I mentioned that I felt that grieving and falling in love again were separate issues. One really has nothing to do with the other although like most things in life, they will affect each other on occasion.

I always think that making a new relationship a priority through communication – especially of expectations and needs – is crucial, but that is true regardless of circumstances. As is the fact that a person’s intimate relationships are not a matter of public debate nor should outside input be allowed unless specifically requested and then with the understanding that it might be completely disregarded.

And I was honest with this person about how hard it is to fall in love again. It is not for the flowers and paper hearts crowd because there is real work involved. Of course, anyone who thinks love’s basis is romance and chemistry should steer clear of it, in my opinion.

I am not wise. I have lived through a lot of things. Some experiences have made me a better person and some are simply events that have added to the body of who I am.

I pointed the reader in the direction of some blogs and the widda boards (with a cautionary note there because at Ye Ole Widda Board, early daters are routinely fileted – flayed? – by the Widda’s Who Protest Too Much) and wished him/her luck. Not because I think luck is needed. Relationships succeed or fail based on two people’s ability to parlay mutual attraction and interests past the biology that blinkers us all. No, I wished him/her luck because that’s what you do. Share your experiences and allow people to learn from their own.

Long Distance Relationships

“We cannot put off living until we are ready. The most salient characteristic of life is its urgency, here and now without any possible postponement. Life is fired at us point-blank.”

Jose Orgeta y Gasset

That was the quote that Rob came across in his Franklin day planner that tipped the scales and began our journey to where we are today. There is irony in the fact that someone as random as I am have organization to thank for my soon to be husband. I have been reading emails and IM transcripts from the earliest days of my relationship with Rob. I tend to do this when it has been a long while since we have been together and another visit is nearing.

When one considers the physical distance between us the actual amount of face time we have had is remarkable. By the time he arrives here in early June to help us pack and move to Canada, we will have spent about 24 days together. In not quite 6 months. Better, I think, than some couples who live on opposite ends of the same city.

Between us we have sent nearly 800 emails and spent literally days on the phone and IMing if the hours were calculated. There really isn’t any point during the day when we can’t reach each other. One of the things that experts recommend for long distance relationships to be successful is communication, so in light of all this I would call us uber-successful.

The early days emails are interesting in retrospect. There are the odd moments when our interest in each other is clearly not “just friends”, and I wonder now how that was overlooked, or if it was really. In our conversations of late we have admitted to each other that the attraction was early and mutual, and I wonder how that can be because each of us was still clearly not ready, consciously anyway, to love someone other than our late spouses.

I did an Internet search last night to find the predictors for long distance relationship success. The first was communication, and letter writing was the chief factor in romances prevailing whether it was email or the snail variety. Talking on the phone was just not enough. I can understand why. Writing frees a person from constraints, and it is a deliberate medium in which you can take the time to phrase and frame your thoughts. The phone is fraught with the same problems of speaking in person and worse, robs the speakers of the visual cues that verbal communication ironically relies on.

Establishing ground rules for the relationship early and sticking to them was another predictor for a relationship’s longevity. I don’t recall if Rob and I did this in so many words. When our needs were not being met, we simply told each other what was wrong. Which I suppose is the one rule we did have and still do, and that is we tell each other when something is wrong, or we ask when we don’t understand where the other is coming from. This though, I think, goes back to communication.

Another factor for success is the amount of face time a couple schedules. After spending about 10 days together over my spring break in March, we both realized that there was no way we could get to June without seeing each other. We had barely survived the two and a half weeks between our first face to face meeting in Idaho Falls and Arkansas. So, a new plan was hammered out with regularly scheduled visits. It hasn’t made the time apart easier, but it has given us something to look forward to and eased the longing to be together a tiny bit. One of the things the articles didn’t address, but I will, is that how much face time a couple needs is going to vary and has to be talked about and adequately addressed. Rob and I in a word…..suck… the physical separation part of this long distance thing. Some of it can be attributed to widowhood, but I think also it is just our personalities. We need to be able to physically connect and show our affection, need, and love for each other. I was no different with Will, and I would guess it was the same for Rob with Shelley.

Deciding how long the distance will be a factor in the relationship and who will be the one to relocate was cited as well as a predictor for success. I am moving to Canada in June. And this is no small thing at my age and given my circumstances. It means selling a house, resigning from my teaching position, pulling up stakes in Iowa and emigrating to another country. And I am doing this with a four year old in tow. However, it made the most sense when looked at from a practical standpoint. I will be able to teach eventually in Canada but it is not as easy for Rob to find work here in my neck of the Midwest. He has the better job. But honestly, and all practical matters aside, I was okay with going to him. He feels like home to me, and wherever he is that is where I am supposed to be.

Another important point in maintaining a distance relationship is keeping things “spicy”, and they suggest everything and the kitchen sink really. To be blunt I don’t see the appeal of phone sex, and webcams are beyond nasty in any context I can imagine. Erotic emails on the other hand, while not a substitute, make for good foreplay. Whereas Rob is adamant that some of these emails of ours need to be purged from the “record” so to speak, I will not be deleting them anytime soon. I have nothing of Will. No record of his thoughts, pure or otherwise, and so I can’t bring myself to destroy anything that Rob has written to me and probably never will. I guess only time will tell whose version of our early days will be the one of record.

Back in the day when marriages were a matter to be arranged rather than something born of preference and personal choice, distance and courting by mail weren’t viewed so suspiciously. One of the mp3’s that Rob sent me over the course of our communications was Prairie Wedding by Mark Knopfler. The lyrics aptly fit our situation. Rob used a verse of that song in the following post on the YWBB in response to someone’s query as to whether or not two people could fall in love over the Internet:

I am saddened that our society has made us so bitter and jaded that we look for subterfuge and ulterior motives everywhere. I’m not saying we shouldn’t use our heads and know what we are doing…..but I, for one, appreciate that there can still be magic.

The start of my relationship with my fiancee was kind of described by the beautiful song “Prairie Wedding” by Mark Knopfler, which starts like this:

We Only Knew Each Other By Letter

I Went To Meet Her Off The Train

When The Smoke Had Cleared And The Dust Was Still

She Was Standing There And Speaking My Name

I Guarantee She Looked Like An Angel

I Couldn’t Think Of What I Should Say

But When Adam Saw Eve In The Garden

I Believe He Felt The Selfsame Way

I guess I’m just a hopeless romantic.

I guess I am too and every day I count myself one of the luckiest people on the planet to have been found by this amazing and remarkable man with whom I am going to spend the rest of my life.

Lot's Wife on the Dead Sea Shore

Lot's Wife on the Dead Sea Shore by Ian W Scott via Flickr

In the beginning, I looked back a lot. Went over every detail and tried to figure out what I overlooked or just didn’t see that could have made the difference between Will dying or still being alive.

When it finally sunk in that this was not the most productive use of my time, I downgraded that particular brand of self-torture to “hobby” and took up the full-time task of trying to stay one-step ahead of disaster.

My world was a house of cards, and it took only the slightest suggestion of a breeze to threaten it. I was single-minded in this respect as well. I rarely let anyone stop me from doing what I thought needed to be done. There were times when I was wrong, because who isn’t, but more often I managed to come to just the right solution and stave off the wind for another day.

Afterwards, I tarried for quite some time in the eye of the hurricane that I had been holding off with super-human will, but as time passed and the urgent needs of survival faded, I found that I wasn’t able to anymore. The adrenaline surge came to an abrupt and I was swept into the maelstrom.

Storms pass, even tropical ones, and you climb out of the temporary shelters, assess the damage and call your insurance man. That used to be Will. And then it was just me and whomever I could cajole into assisting me. Now there is an exotic Canadian applying for the job. It is harder than I thought it would be to allow him to help. I thought I had learned so much. In the end, I still have trust and control issues to work on.

Still, once upon a time, I didn’t even acknowledge the existence of  these issues, let alone work on them.

I am not sure how it happened that I came to fall in love and agree to abandon the cocoon existence I had so carefully constructed for myself and my daughter. For all my Saggitarian impulsiveness, I am more of a water rabbit. Bunnies don’t like working without a net. It makes us cranky. Crankiness being our standard cover for insecurities and fears.

I guess it would be too simple to say that I just couldn’t resist, but I couldn’t. There is something compelling and ultimately futile in resisting destiny and oddly unmistakable. I have never been able to back away, even when I was terrified, and I wouldn’t say that I am really. How could I be after all that has happened? But, I am not naive. I don’t lightly discount the fates. Destiny is the stronger force, but the fates will play havoc where they may.