The title of this blog post comes from a public comment I got from a young widow who was starting to date again. She wrote me about finding someone new after losing her husband in her 20s. She told me that being with someone new felt “complicated and weird” and that she really wasn’t sure whether she’d be with this new guy for a long time or not because there were so many difficult emotional issues she was still working through.
Still, she was really excited about her new boyfriend.
And she wasn’t telling anyone.
At the end of the note, she wrote this: “I don’t want anyone to know, but also want them to be happy for me?”
It was the question mark that got me.
Because, wow, I remember that feeling.
It was my first real relationship, about a year after Shawn died, when I first had those complicated emotions come over me. The men I’d casually dated in the months prior never really stuck around, but this new guy? Well, it was a relationship of sorts.
Over the months prior, we’d become friends, and one night that winter we found ourselves having cocktails until the wee hours of the morning. I laughed at the stories he told about traveling around the world. His body was turned towards mine, and he smiled often at me. At one point, I looked across the bar to see a woman about our age gazing at us. She was with a man, but he wasn’t talking to her, and I could see in her eyes that she wished she was in my place.
No you don’t, I thought.
It made me hesitate, because for the first time, I realized that someone else thought that this guy was my boyfriend. I wasn’t sure if he was, not yet, but it was clear there was something between us. Something that even a stranger could see. Oddly, even though I knew this stranger didn’t know anything about my circumstances, it felt good to get her approval. She could see the glint of happiness in my eyes.
As the weeks went on, we made dates late at night after the kids were in bed, usually far away from my neighborhood. We almost never held hands in public, as I was wary of being seen by someone. Like this woman who wrote me, I didn’t want anyone to know.
Why did I feel that way?
I’m honestly not sure. I thought for sure I’d be judged for dating just a year after Shawn had died. I thought other people might be wary of my new sort-of-boyfriend. I thought the kids wouldn’t understand.
But damn, I wanted to tell people. Look! I’m happy!
Of course, I was still sad a lot of the time, and that’s much of the reason why this sort-of-boyfriend never became someone who was fully part of my life. He had his own personal issues as well, and neither of us could make it stick.
But I remember that feeling, the one where I simultaneously wanted everyone to know…and wanted no one to know. It’s a weird space.
I think it comes from the guilt and shame that are a part of widowhood. There seem to be so many unwritten rules about what is proper, of course, but there are also the unwritten rules about what it means to date again. Are you over your grief if you’re laughing and having a drink at the bar with another man? Are you out-of-love with your late spouse if you kiss someone new? Are you done being a widow if you find yourself temporarily or permanently happy with someone else?
Sometimes other people say these things, or you hear them in the media. But I’ve found that the voice that screamed these complicated issues mostly loudly to me was…ME.
Back then, when I was struggling so much but still trying to date, I wanted everyone to know when I had found a bit of joy again with someone new. And yet, I also didn’t want anyone to know. I was like this reader, the one who finds herself feeling joy with a new man while still grieving her late husband.
I don’t have any widow-guru lines to say to this new widow. It’s hard. There are a lot of complicated feelings. Sometimes these new relationships are just practice and sometimes they take shape. Some of these new relationships fade before you end up telling anyone besides your sister. Sometimes they stick around for longer. It’s really hard to know, because early widowhood (and dating in general) is unpredictable.
Back to that question mark from my reader, because I think it’s so important: “I don’t want anyone to know, but also want them to be happy for me?”
I think, really, this question mark isn’t just about what other people might say. Yes, of course, you want other people to be happy for you if you actually decide to share about your relationship. But I think this question mark is also about the judgment that many new widows feel….a judgment from within. Am I supposed to be doing this if it feels weird? Why do I like dating if it stirs up complicated emotions for me? Is this the right thing to be doing?
Here’s what I’ll say to those questions – you have to answer them yourself. But I’ve found that sometimes, trying to push aside a bit of your self-judgment can be really helpful when you start dating again as a widow.
Go gentle with yourself, and let yourself feel happy if the emotion comes over you.
You can deal with the neighbors later.