Do It When It Doesn’t Make You Want To Throw Up

Cutout of man stepping like post of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley

I remember the moment – the exact moment – when someone brought up dating in our grief group. “When will we know it’s time to date?”

Our group therapist, who was both blunt and kind, leaned back in her chair and took a deep breath. “You can start thinking about dating,” she said, “when it doesn’t make you want to throw up.”

I remember very little about this grief group, as Shawn had died just a few months prior to it and I was in the haze of new loss. But this comment stuck with me. At the time, dating was not remotely on my radar, and if I had been able to even look at other men, I know I would have found the idea of being with someone else revolting.

But I’ve often returned to this moment. Our therapist went on to talk about how this litmus test was a good one for a lot of things. When should you clean out your partner’s closet? When it doesn’t make you want to throw up. When do you start thinking about applying for a new job or selling the house? When it doesn’t make you want to throw up. When do you plan that first trip without your partner? When it doesn’t make you want to throw up.

As she talked about this idea, it struck me as overly simplistic and a bit ridiculous. I mean, was that really the bar? I should do things when they didn’t make me physically gag?

I didn’t realize until much later how brilliant of a line it actually was.

At the time, everyone else was telling me to do things when I felt “ready.” But what was “ready”? How did I know that I was “ready” for anything? I certainly wasn’t “ready” for Shawn’s death and I knew I hadn’t been “ready” to tell my children their father had died. I faced both of those things because I had to. But back in the spring of 2018, I felt like I’d never be ready for anything that I didn’t absolutely have to do.

I was wrong, of course. I got to the point where a lot of things didn’t make me throw up. I sold Shawn’s car. I took off my wedding ring. I cleaned out Shawn’s closet. I even tried a new relationship for a bit.

At each step, everyone warned me not to do things until I “felt ready.” But here’s the key: I never, ever felt ready.

I did not feel “ready” to get rid of Shawn’s possessions. It was hard to go through the books from his office and realize that while he found defense policy of the mid-20th century interesting, a 500-page book on that topic was unlikely to ever be opened again in our house. I didn’t want to get rid of that book, or any of the rest.

But I knew in the back of my mind that I needed to make space for myself in our house. I wanted to do that. In the end, I was able to donate this book (and many others) because it didn’t make me throw up.

To be clear – I wasn’t ready to part with a lot of his clothes or his car or his trinkets. They were all part of what made him Shawn. I kept a lot of his things. But when I could finally pick up a shirt of his and say, “I can let this go” without physically falling to the ground, I knew it was time to give it to Goodwill.

If I had waited until I was “ready” there would still be dozens and dozens of boxes in my garage labeled “Shawn’s office” and an entire closet full of clothes of his. I’d still be paying for his phone and his car and his CrossFit membership. I’d probably never have eaten at a restaurant alone.

Instead, I did all of those things – and many more – when they didn’t make me feel physically ill. To be fair, sometimes I misjudged my ability to be ready, and I ended up crying on the floor of a public bathroom or something equally embarrassing. But mostly, this rule has been a useful one, and I’m surprised at how often I still use it to gage whether or not I’m ready for something.

Here’s just one example from my life right now. At the end of May, a friend set up an online dating account for me. Every time I opened it over the summer, I’d feel a pit in my stomach when I’d see various notes from men in my inbox. But today, for no reason whatsoever, I decided to look through my account again.

And I didn’t feel like throwing up.

Hey, it’s a step.

15 Replies to “Do It When It Doesn’t Make You Want To Throw Up”

  1. Marjorie = Good for you. Every step is a step, especially when you don’t throw up in the process and have to stop to clean it up. The therapist’s comment is brilliant and I’m going to remember it. Been thinking about you at the start of this new school year. Sending love and praying for continued healing and first steps. Serena

    1. Serena, thank you so much for your prayers! I’ve been thinking of you too, and I hope you and your family are doing well. And I love this: “every step is a step!”

  2. “Hey, it’s just a step. ” M. can I use that one too? Thanks. Every Friday night I descend again ….and i listen to the Chris Botti Boston cd…it somehow just helps. …not ready to be anything but sad (John Mayer track) but i have let her things go to the goodwill to find a new home (as she would want)…pictures and music mean the most or help the most…a bit of tequila helps too…just received a heart ❤ emoji from our daughter and came apart…she lives through her children and all the lives she touched with her love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness and gentleness. i miss her so on Friday nights………Thank you for sharing, for this blog, for letting me write. ABP

    1. I love that you comment here and share such beauty and pain. The weekends are the hardest for me too, and I think for a lot of people who’ve lost a spouse. But I love that your daughter is there with you and sending you heart emojis!

  3. Some friends have been urging me to expand my social horizons. My dating has been limited to things like going to dinner and a concert with a widowed friend whom I have known for over 20 years, and with whose husband I used to play handbells – but I’m not sure that counts. Although I really wasn’t “ready.” I plunged ahead and opened an online dating account. It was a weird and distinctly painful experience – particularly responding to the section on “The One I Am Looking For.” Nevertheless, a slightly cynical curiosity about the process did manage to keep the gag reflex under control. I decided that blunt honesty was in order. My response to “In a Nutshell” read: “Widower (as of 2017) after a loving 50-year marriage. Seeking to move forward – and trying to figure out what that means.”

    As replies started to come in, I was intrigued to observe my own reactions. I felt almost embarrassed at the emphasis I put on physical looks, although many postings were too generic (family, friends, fun…) to be attractive on their own (and a lot of the photography was quite poor). I tended to zero in on widows (not surprising, I guess), and I categorically rejected anyone with my late wife’s name. As I sorted through them, I felt tension and anxiety drain away, and a sort of cavalier attitude took over. I realized that, precisely because I was not “ready,” my search desperation level was nil. I really didn’t have any skin in the game; nothing was riding on it. I eventually did message a few women that interested me. One was an attractive woman in Alabama, who said she preferred mountains to beaches. I noted that I did too, but that I was more than half the length of the Appalachian Trail away from her. (I also threw in a terrible pun involving elephants and Tuscaloosa.) That was rather fun, mostly (I think) because the chances of ever actually getting together seem so minimal.

    Hey, it’s a step.

    1. Hi, Henry. Just out of curiosity and for my own edification, what was the age range of the women you messaged? Were they somewhere around your own age or considerably younger? I ask this because I’d read that studies of online dating services have shown that the older the man, the younger the woman has to be that he’s willing to date. Perhaps this isn’t the case with you and you truly would like to be with someone who has more in common with you at this point in your life than a much younger woman might. No offense intended, with this question. I just can’t imagine putting myself out there so I applaud you for your courage.

      However, I’m reminded of when I was about 60 (I’m 72 now) and I took care of my granddaughter three days a week. There was a retired physician who used to walk his dog past my daughter’s house every day. He was 97 and had outlived three wives. He stopped to talk with me one day and I learned later from my daughter that he’d told her I was “an attractive woman.” So, at age 60, 97 year-old men thought I was hot. Now, I guess I should look for someone who’s 109. 🙂

  4. I am a 62 year old widower. My better half past away last Nov after an eight year bout with the damned cancer. She was the greatest blessing of my life and all the plans we had to travel and enjoy grandchildren went… well, to paraphrase, life is what happens to your plans. There is a lifetime of grief to go for me… but can I imagine someone else to enjoy life with? Frankly, just months ago the answer was no, but now i am not so tightly gripped by grief. The online thing is anathema to me….would like a bit the serendipity of a chance meeting like i had with her 40 years ago in Pensacola, FL. We since spent a career as an active duty U. S. Marine couple. MCAS New River MCAS Cherry Point, Okinawa, Stuttgart, DC, and the unaccompanied tours for me to the sandbox. Frankly, she was always unaccompanied while she raised three boys and a daughter…while i was always mentally deployed to wherever the Corps had me assigned. She was a persevering saint. I retired from active duty then she got the damned cancer. That’s our story. I wish she were here instead of me…why was she tagged with cancer and not me? Sign me up, put that cancer in my ruck…but painfully, she had to fight that campaign…back to the present reality…someone else?…not right now….too much of her departed still with me…may always be that way….but some providential serendipity is my hope, if i can reconcile it.

  5. To Melissa:
    The search age range I specified was 65 to 75 (I am 75). I didn’t go any higher, as I wanted to minimize the possibility of being widowed. Other data: My wife was 8 months older than me. The woman in Alabama was actually 62.
    Perhaps I should message you.

    1. Henry, thanks for replying to my question. I appreciate your honesty. My husband was 11 years older than me (he was 40 and I was 29 when we married–second marriages for both of us.) We were a week short of our 42nd anniversary when he died last year at age 81. Yes, the possibility of being widowed again does come up often in my thoughts when I allow myself to even consider being involved with someone new. Before he died he told me he wanted me to have a happy life and a companion. Right now that place is being filled by my little dog. 🙂

  6. I first dipped my toe into the waters two years after the funeral, after seventeen years of chronic illness and constant decline. So much is so different the second time around; so much is so different for the widowed, than for the divorced. I was sure I was ready, until one night I lay there listening to a normal pair of lungs, working normally, and I had an absolute meltdown at the absolute wrong time! It took me a while to grant myself peace for loving two people-OK, one of them dead- at the same time, and it took a while longer to find someone who could accept that it would always be that way with me. Even so, there was no way I was going to allow anyone who wasn’t family even help me raise our young children. Here’s hoping you all can find the peace that eventually came to me.

    1. Oh, yes, the meltdowns. I’ve had them with other men. It’s never, ever pretty. But I guess anyone who can hold that type of emotion is the type of person that we can hold onto. Or at least they can pass that first test.

  7. Hi, just found your blog by accident. I’m a 56 yr old widow… been widowed since the age of 38 and a then a mom to 3 (6, 8 and 10 yrs) now 24, 26 and 28. We’ve ‘made it’ so far. On the dating… I started when it didn’t make me want to throw up… exactly. BUT… they don’t last long or don’t even get a foot out of the coffee shop. Maybe I’m not meant to marry again, (or maybe Mr. Right isn’t ready yet and I’ll meet him in my 60s or 70s or 80s…. ) and that’s okay. I make my own money, care for my home and enjoy watching my 3 make their way into the world post college years. Life sure is an adventure.
    Lisa

    1. I totally get that. I’m actually not convinced I’ll ever get remarried. I feel okay with that, and honestly, dating is not about finding another husband for me. Maybe that will change, maybe it won’t. For the first time in almost two years, I feel okay about the prospect that I may just have one great love in my life.

      Thanks so much for finding my blog and for reading!

  8. Thanks for sharing this. I love this concept. I sometimes try to think into the future and hope that I won’t allow my 37 year old self be alone for the rest of my life and immediately think to myself how I don’t want anyone else. I think about the fact that I don’t take off my ring and all the other things that are mentioned in the comments, understanding that it’s very early right now, but that at some point it may be “time to” do these things. It’s great to have a place to read through the various phases and ways that others have gotten through these difficult times. At the end of it all, the reality is that he (Phil) will always be in my heart and part of my longing. If ever there is someone else they would have to know that if I could have chosen it would have never been that person, it would have been Phil, over and over again. It would take a rediculously understanding person to accept that and my wishes to be buried with my husband no matter what life brings in my future. I would love for you to write this all into a book, but this here is great too. We can comment and share with each other and for a breif moment, I don’t feel so alone.

    1. Oh, thank you for sharing all of this. The early stages are really tough and I truly don’t believe there is any sort of timeline. I think we all just stumble through it as best as we can, hopefully coming up for air every once in a while. Some day, there may be a book in my future, but for now, I’m so glad so many people who can find solace in my blog are reading it.

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