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Widowed: Dating won’t fix you (because you’re not broken)

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It wasn’t even two weeks after my husband died leaving me with a newborn and twin two-year olds that the comments starting rolling in: “You’re so young, you’ll find another dad for your kids.” “You’ll find someone else,” someone even told me, “All you need is a one-night stand.”

Now, four years later, I still hear advice and promptings encouraging me to date and “find someone.” Although, the only thing that was missing, was anyone actually asking me what I wanted in my life and if I was ready or not, I didn’t give myself permission to explore that and to appease friends, and albeit my own curiosity, I signed up for the dating sites. I went on more than a dozen dates and it was all just “meh.”

Why? What was wrong with me that I just wasn’t interested in meeting someone and starting a romantic relationship? I had done a lot of hard grief-work, I had processed and reconciled my grief with my late husband, and while I miss him every day, I’m not pining after a dead man. I know he’s not coming back, I know he’s not here, and I know there’s no replacing the man that took up so much of my heart–sounds harsh, but it’s something I had to be blunt with myself about. I figured out why I felt so disconnected with the dating process and it, for the most part, had nothing to do with my late husband. I had spent SO much time and energy on processing the loss of my husband, going ALL the way back to when he was still living. Because he died from cancer, I grieved the loss of him before he even died as a little part of him faded away every day. As a cancer caregiver and then becoming a widowed parents, the last person on the “care” list was myself. I was so busy keeping everyone else alive, I didn’t realize I was fading away too. My vitality. My motivation. My love for and acceptance of myself. I was so used to being a part of a pair, that when he died, I completely lost myself. One of the most common phrases I hear from other widows and widowers is “I feel like I died too.” I said it too, I felt that too, but the truth is, I didn’t. I didn’t die, instead I got lost. I got lost in the tangled mess of cancer, death, and trying to navigate parenting on my own, throw “You should date and find another dad for your kids into the mix”…well that just threw me even further off-course.

What I’ve finally realized I had a broken heart, but I wasn’t broken. The scars left from the pain of losing my husband will always be there and no amount of moving forward would ever equate to forgetting, but the gaping wound has since healed and those scars are what remains, but they don’t define who I am. I define who I am and that’s why I deleted the dating apps, because I didn’t know who I was. So I’ll repeat, dating, one-night stands, friends with benefits, won’t fix you, because you’re not broken.

My late husband and I didn’t talk about death even when he was dying, but I do remember a moment when I was so exhausted, so poured out, so beside myself with heartache that I fell to my knees at his bedside one night, weeping into his shoulder as he held me. He told me, “Nothing around you can make you happy. I can’t make you happy. No one else can make you happy. You have to find it in yourself. You have to find it above, in God.” I know, it probably sounds like a Hallmark card, but that’s one of the final conversations I remember having with him and it’s stuck with me since. Stuck with me so much that I knew, deep inside, when I felt the itch to start dating because other widows I knew started dating, or because someone told me the Bible tells me I should find someone else, or because my friends want to set me up with someone, or just because I’m so damn tired of feeling lonely and going to be alone, that I knew that I was doing it for the wrong reasons (my own personal reasons).

Finding someone, for sure, can compliment your life, he or she can add to it abundantly, but using it as a distraction, or a band-aid to the wounds that haven’t been attended to just won’t work.  Putting the responsibility on someone else to fix you, rescue you or make you happy isn’t a fair expectation to put on him or her, and it shortchanges yourself. Rather, looking at it to fill a void or to complete something that is allegedly incomplete, might end up in more heartbreak.

There isn’t limited space in our hearts for love, if that was true, no one would have multiple children. Instead, if I allow it, my heart can expand, but it starts with loving myself. I’m not waiting for anyone to rescue me, to fix my broken life, because I refuse to believe either. I don’t need to be rescued and I’m not broken. I don’t need to be set up with yet another man, because I need to make time for myself, to get to know the woman who carried and delivered three lives, the woman who held her husband’s hand through sickness and in health ‘til death parted us. The woman who fought to see the light when darkness closed in. The woman who persists and continues to conquer the darkest days in order to be whole and healthy for not only her children and others, but for herself. If I can’t look in the mirror and see that woman, to love and accept her, I can’t expect anyone else to either. I’m not out to “find” a man, I’m finding myself, fully trusting that my future love is waiting, we just haven’t met yet. In the meantime, I’m getting to know myself.

Those who have gone before

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In the season of raising young children when we are reminded time and time again to cherish the season, to enjoy every moment, well-meaning unsolicited advice and self-inflicted guilt is overwhelming to me. As a widowed single parent, the glaring absence of my other half makes the stress and guilt unbearable at times.

My 4-year-old boys are very energetic, outgoing and exude confidence wherever they go. I consider this a beautiful part of their personality—particularly because I was an incredibly shy child. I probably missed out on trying a lot of new things, as my shyness would sometimes paralyze my personality. However, in public places, they take their energy and double it with their strange twin powers, and it can be like dynamite! We become very conspicuous, and their beautiful little spit-fire spirits can be an incredible source of stress and anxiety for me in these moments.

When I was a little more than seven months pregnant with my third child, my husband had just started palliative care and full-time oxygen support as a Stage 4 terminal cancer patient. We were a little overzealous one day, and tried to “grab a couple things” at Target. I quickly lost sight of my husband who had wandered off—he was getting more and more confused about simple things and it took a lot of concentration to maintain focus on the item he was looking for—and I also lost sight of my boys, who were two at the time. They had wandered off because, well, they were two-year-old twin boys and their mom was a tired, stressed, waddling pregnant woman. Twins-1, Mom-0. I finally located the boys and tried to corral them through the aisles while looking for my husband. My back was aching, the boys were out of control and there was always a slight anxiousness bubbling inside me for the entirety of the situation–cancer, babies, pregnancy–which at the time I couldn’t even begin to wrap my head around. I was waddling down the aisles, the boys going every which way, huffing and puffing and feeling light-headed, when down the other side of the aisle comes a woman. She’s smiling as she walks past us and chuckles, “Oh my, you’ve got your hands full…enjoy this age,” and goes on her merry way, when inside me I’m screaming for help and no one could hear me.

So, next time you see a mom or dad in complete exasperation at their child, consider that it’s not because of their child at all; perhaps that one moment you see them, tired and overwhelmed, is because their divorce just got finalized, or they just received a grim diagnosis, or just went bankrupt. Maybe they really do enjoy their children, and what you see is them fighting to survive for the children they adore so much. The last thing tired, exasperated parents need is someone telling them how full their hands are. Believe me, they live it, day and night, the fullness overflowing around their ankles at times. Throughout my family’s crisis, I grew to resent these comments. Each remark felt like another hole torn in an already gaping wound of single parenting. And the reality, at that moment in the store with Phil’s absence (we did finally run into him obviously), was that even though he was still alive, cancer is a thief that slowly tears someone away from you; I realized I was already a single mom.

Since my husband’s death almost two years ago, there have been times at the grocery store I’ve had to leave a full cart to escort two pint-sized, egg carton vandals (now four years old and more rambunctious than ever) with baby in tow to the minivan. At these moments, I feel like dropping to my knees in the middle of the aisle to cry and throw my own temper tantrum, because there seems to be an underlying sense of judgement of one’s parenting when kids act up. And at these moments, it seems there is always a well-meaning person who comes up to me smiling and says, “They grow up so fast, enjoy them while you can.” Or, “Oh, boys will be boys.” Instead of feeling encouraged, I now feel a little bit worse, because while I do enjoy my kids, I’m not enjoying that particular moment! My inner “am-I-a-good-mommy?” meter is way off kilter!

These deep feelings are the feelings that don’t show when my blood pressure rises as my kids are acting up and I appear agitated with them. When one of my boys is biting off the ends of carrots in the grocery store and putting them back, or the other is playing hacky sack with eggs when I turn to wipe the baby’s face because somehow she ended up with a ketchup packet that she bit and got all over her face. My brain just wants to leave the store, but knows I can’t because we’re out of everything as I’ve avoided the store for so long. My soul is feeling crushed because no matter how much grace and love and second chances or following through with natural consequences or reading parenting book after parenting book, after all that I still feel like I’m failing as a parent—all alone.

Over time, the comments of, “Oh they’re just being kids,” or, “They grow up so fast, enjoy them,” don’t bowl me over as much as they used to. I now try to focus on a detail I was overlooking before: these veteran parents have made it to another season in parenting. They have been through the tantrums in the shopping aisles, the chaos at a restaurant, the drama of a knickknack breaking at a friend’s home — and what they remember through all of it is how precious the whole experience of parenting little ones was, not individual events. This tells me that the good moments add up to be far more memorable than the hair-pulling, vein-in-the-middle of the forehead-popping, exhausting moments. And now I choose to allow those comments to give me a little glimmer of hope when I’m holding a kicking and screaming boy with one arm and pushing a full grocery cart with a baby (well now she’s a toddler, but still feels like my baby!) in the other, making sure the other boy is following closely behind. I’ll think, “I’m doing this and I’m not doing it alone, there are thousands of others who’ve braved the parenting path and survived and thrived with wonderful things to say about the hardest job in the world.”

The truth is, we shouldn’t be expected to parent alone. Whether we’re single by choice or by circumstance (this applies to married parents as well), we’re not parenting alone. All of you veteran parents can offer something valuable to young parents like me: it’s encouragement.

And I’m sure, many years from now, I’ll be old and gray, meandering through a grocery aisle, longingly looking at a child making art from a box of Fruit Loops he poured in the middle of the floor. I’ll say to an exasperated mom or dad, “One day you’ll enjoy these moments, but for now, you’re not alone and parenting is so hard. Power through and hang on! You’ll see how beautiful these many messy moments end up being…By the way, can I buy your groceries for you?…or at the very least, a latte?”