I was at the cemetery when I decided to set up my first online dating profile. I was visiting my husband’s grave nine months after his death, and I thought about how much life I still had left to live. “Please tell me it’s okay to find someone,” I said to no one in particular.
I wasn’t quite sure how to date. I was widowed at 38 and had plenty of dating years ahead of me. The problem was that I didn’t know anything about the modern world of dating I faced. I’d been with my husband Shawn since right after college, so I had no real idea how to meet single men that I didn’t just run into all the time on campus. My friends assured me that the way to meet people was via the internet. But what did I know about the world of online dating, from writing a catchy bio to appearing attractive in digital form?
My research into the best online dating sites for widows and widowers was not encouraging. A quick search pulled up sites like “Our Time” and “Silver Singles,” but I was more than a decade too young for both of them. The other two whose names initially made me think they might be promising, “Just Widower Dating” and “The Widow Dating Club,” each had cover photos with couples who looked to be at least 20 years older than me.
My friends laughed along with me when the first photo we pulled up on one widow dating website was of a man who was clearly older than my father. I didn’t want to date a 70-year-old man, but apparently if I was looking to date other people who suffered a similar loss to mine, my options were limited. Where were all the other young widows and widowers? Maybe there just weren’t that many of us.
I looked into more mainstream dating sites. Yes, I could list that I was a widow on my profile. But would that scare men away? Worse, might it draw creepy men, like the ones who pretended to be widowers and stalked my Facebook page? Those men usually posed as “widowed military men” and sent me message after message until I blocked them. How could I be honest about who I was and what I wanted but also attract the kind of guy I’d actually want to know?
I spent hours trying to figure out what to put in the forms online. But as I thought about whether to actually make my profile live, the bigger question remained unanswered.
Did I really want to do this?
My husband died. What was I supposed to tell my date?
It’s a lot to date a widow. First of all, a new date needs to know my status, which is likely to mean that I end up telling a stranger about the worst thing that’s ever happened to me within a few hours of meeting him. Even if I manage to communicate that I am a widow before the first date, a load of baggage remains. Is he supposed to ask about my late husband? Am I supposed to avoid my loss entirely? How soon is too soon to mention Shawn’s name?
Recently, I met a handsome stranger and we got to talking about religion and spirituality. “I believe in God,” the man said, “but not a God that intervenes here on Earth.”
“I agree,” I said, “because otherwise, why the fuck is my husband dead?”
Not surprisingly, it had the effect of stopping all conversation. Of course it did. This type of behavior — speaking before I could really think about my response — is something I found is common for many widows. In many ways, we have lost the ability to make small talk or to say anything other than exactly what’s on our minds. Most of us have dealt with experiences that our peers won’t have to face for decades, and that means that we don’t have the patience to play games. What you see is what you get. In my case, that means you get a 39-year-old widow with three young kids. How do you put that on a profile?
It’s not just the profiles that are hard. Almost every widow I know has a wild story about a stranger’s reaction after learning her relationship status. One of my friends was hit on by her late husband’s friend, a barber, as he cut her son’s hair. Another found love in a grief group, only to find out that the man was horribly demeaning and all they really shared was the incredible bad luck that brought them to the group. Yet another went on several dates with a “nice” guy who she later found out was arrested and incarcerated for a decade for possessing child pornography. “That will scare you into never dating again,” she told me.
Of course, plenty of widows meet a great “chapter two” (widow parlance for a love after loss) and are able to move on to a new relationship. But when I look at my digital options, I feel overwhelmed by even the seemingly small issues that arise all the time. Most of the formerly married people I see online are divorced. While I am of course okay with dating a divorced man, I have found that widows and divorcees have different points of view about the past. Divorce — even one that was amicable — severs a relationship with some degree of clarity and purpose. The death of a spouse is more complicated.
The issue remains that my past relationship is not gone because either of us chose it. Neither Shawn nor I wanted to separate, and I certainly didn’t want him to die in my arms at age 40. This terrible tragedy happened to us, but we didn’t want it. So, for example, a divorcee will probably call their former spouse their “ex.” But Shawn is not my ex — he is still my husband. We did not choose to end our relationship because it wasn’t working out.
My late husband is still part of my life
I guess that encapsulates why it is so difficult to date a widow, especially a young one like me whose loss is so new. Shawn lingers over my life like a fog. Though I see his continuing presence in my life as a beautiful morning mist that surrounds me with love, I worry that my potential dates will see it as a murky haze that makes real communication impossible. Maybe the real problem is that any affection I might feel for another man would always be shared, at least in some way.
A widower would understand this. But most of the men in my potential dating pool are not widowed, and thus, it can feel impossible to explain how I might be able to move forward with someone new while also keeping a piece of my heart with my late husband. If the roles were reversed, and I was a non-widowed single person dating a widower, I’m sure I’d feel a degree of insecurity about my partner’s attachment to his late wife. But the other option — to leave Shawn behind forever — is not something I’m going to choose. So the dilemma remains.
A few days after setting up my online profiles, I decided to take them down. “They just make me feel bad,” I told my friends. I wasn’t quite sure why I felt this way, only that I was pretty sure I couldn’t communicate the wholeness of my experience in just a few sentences and a handful of photos. I cried as I deleted the last profile, though I didn’t know if it was from relief or something else.
As I dried my tears, I thought about Shawn. “I know he’s out in the universe cheering me on,” I said to a friend later that night. It was true. Before we started dating, Shawn was my friend, and he used to offer me dating advice. I wonder what he’d say about my tragic forays into the dating world.
I bet he’d smile and have a good joke ready to help me feel better about it all. And that’s what I miss most of all.
Marjorie Brimley is a high school teacher and mother of three. She spends her nights replaying the weird encounters that go along with being a recent widow and blogging about them at DCwidow.com. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.