Being open to the pain of loss again

After my husband died, I realized for the first time that nearly every couple that doesn’t break up is going to see one of them widowed. I knew it abstractedly, of course, before Tom died, but the idea of living through the death of my partner seemed so unlikely and distant that when it did happen, it felt almost unnatural. But there is nothing unnatural about one partner outliving the other. That doesn’t make it suck any less, but it does put into perspective that being widowed is something an awful lot of us will experience, some of us more than once.

After his stroke, when it became clear that he was going to have significant health challenges for the rest of his life, my husband wanted to talk about me surviving him. Even knowing the facts of his medical condition, it seemed like an outlandish possibility to me. He was only 60. We were in love. We laughed and enjoyed the hell out of every day. Even paralyzed, plagued by pain and cognitive issues, he lived fiercely. I couldn’t imagine him ever not living. I evaded the discussion for months but finally he said, “This is important to me. I need to have this conversation.”

He wanted me to find love and happiness with someone after he died. I promised him I would, mostly to end the conversation. Imagining a world without him in it seemed farcical to me. Many days, it still does. Even with the celebration of life done, most of the paperwork done, the estate settling nearly done. Even with most of his clothes given away, the knife-sharpening stuff moved out to the garage, the makeshift bedroom on the main floor dismantled. He is still so present in my thoughts and conversations that it seems absurd sometimes that he’s dead.

“Now that you know how much it hurts to lose your life partner, will you open yourself up to that potential again?”

This question comes up regularly in the widow support groups I’m in. There are always some who say no, they have no interest in ever being vulnerable to that pain again. Others say yes, that vulnerability to another loss is a reasonable risk for the rewards of love. Every widowed person has to answer that question for themselves and there is no right or wrong answer. It’s a very personal decision that can be contingent on the role trauma has played in a person’s life, the circumstances of their partner’s death, their tolerance for emotional pain, and more.

Despite how personal the decision is, many of the folks in my support groups have been told by others what their answer should be. Just as people think they can tell grieving people how long their grief should last, they also sometimes think they can tell us whether or not we should pursue another relationship. Someone suggested to me that falling in love again would “tarnish” the story of my relationship with my husband who died; I gave them a salty response. A couple others have told me what timeline they think would be acceptable for me to find another relationship—I politely informed them it was none of their business. (Well, maybe I wasn’t that polite to one of them.)

For me, the answer to the question is automatic and doesn’t involve a bit of hesitation: hell, yeah! I think the conversation with my husband about my life after his death plays some part in how easily I can answer the question. It is certainly a gift to know not just that he was ok with me finding someone else but that it was a thought that gave him peace near the end of his life. The very fact that he died also inspires me to be open to love again. The harsh demonstration of how suddenly a life can end motivates me every day to wring out every bit of joy I can.

I think I will probably love even bigger in the future than I did with Tom. Part of that is my natural streak for resistance. It’s my way of saying to the universe, “Oh, you thought that would slow me down? Ha!” It’s also a tribute to all I had with Tom—I know what it means to have someone who loves me unconditionally and accepts my love with grace, and damn it, I want it again, but this time with even more cowbell.  

I will go into my next relationship knowing that my partner may well die before me. I imagine that will make me a better partner in some ways than I was for Tom. I think of times I let a petty work situation or insecurity cast a shadow over a dinner or times I kept an argument going longer than was productive. I think my clearer understanding now that one of us is going to outlive the other will help me focus on what matters.

I talked last week about Gil Fronsdal’s idea of letting go into something. For me, letting go of the fear of being widowed again allows me to let go into the possibility of being in love again.