This is an essay I wrote a few years after being widowed about my social experiences. Since that time I’ve been content with socializing with family, friends, and my fellow widows and widowers. However, as my children are all now launched, I’ve recently been giving some thought to whether or not to date. It’s something I think I want to do, but I really don’t know how to go about it. I mean it’s been a lot of years since I was the biggest flirt ever at college and dating a lot of different guys. Things have certainly changed in the dating world since then. When I was young, a woman certainly didn’t call a man or do the asking out. (I think that has changed?) A conversation about dating came up recently, and it brought to mind this essay. So I decided to share it, and also ask for advice about how to go about dating after so many years. So please feel free to comment with helpful advice.
Going Out on a Limb: Into the Breach, My First Social Forays
During the first year that I was a widow, I felt rather like a hermit. I was content to remain in my dank, dark cave, and I was irritated at most intrusions. I didn’t feel like doing much socially even though family members and a few close friends encouraged me to get out. Occasionally, I left the confines of my self-imposed solitude to go out and socialize, but even then, my heart wasn’t in it. I recall thinking the mourning period and the convention of limited social activity that was typical in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries may not have been such a bad idea. While I wouldn’t want to be restricted to wearing black, black, black, for “a year and a day,” I can see that limited social activity could be a huge relief. During the first six months of my widowhood I certainly wasn’t in a frame of mind to be any sort of social butterfly, except perhaps a bruised and battered one.
My first foray into social life came via the Internet. I found a website for widows and widowers with an announcement for a get-together. I thought it would be nice to go to a support group and talk with others who might actually “get” what it’s like to be a widow. I was extremely nervous when I arrived, and it took me a little while to will myself to knock on the door. Eventually I did, and was invited in by a gracious middle-aged, slightly distracted host. There were quite a few people there already, eating and chatting, and it was apparent that many of them were already acquainted. I was waiting for a moderator-type person to begin the support group meeting, when one of the ladies announced they would be starting a speed-dating game soon. My mind flashed, Warning! Warning! And that’s when I realized I was at a party, not a support group. Amidst my rising panic, my first instinct was to flee — I was not ready for socializing, yet everyone had been so nice to me for the short time I had been there I didn’t want to be rude by leaving abruptly. Pulling myself together, I put on a brave face, and stayed. During the speed dating game, I saw several sets of eyes go wide when I said I’d been a widow for only five months, confirming that I was a babe in the widow woods. After this misadventure, I think I would have welcomed a crepe mourning veil, circa 1820. As it was, I retreated socially for several months sans the veil.
My next venture into social life was to try out a fireside. A fireside, which in my experience has never actually been held at the side of a fire, is a social/spiritual event sponsored by my church* where a group of people, in this case a group of single adults —widowed, divorced, never married, over the age of thirty (and up to at least ninety, I swear) get together to listen to inspirational music and a speaker, and then partake of refreshments. My thinking was that a fireside would be safe. I could go, listen to the speaker, and then bail if I wanted to. I found the information online about where and when the next one would be held. Stephen Covey, a popular author, was the scheduled speaker. That convinced me it just might be worth attending. I show up to a crowded chapel, the handy-dandy-official-smiley-greeters shook my hand and gave me a card printed with Single Adult Activity Information — all the phone numbers and websites, for me to be integrated into the wonderful world of Single Adults — which was fine, except I still felt very married.
The fireside was great; Covey an inspirational and motivational speaker. Because I was on a roll, having enjoyed the music and the speaker, I decided to brave the post-speaker socializing, and at least check out the refreshments —vegetable platters with ranch dip, cookies, and of course the inevitable fireside staple, punch. So far, so good. I ate a few sprigs of broccoli and cauliflower, opted for water instead of the punch (because I am notorious for spilling on myself), struggled to juggle my cup, my plate, and leave a hand free for shaking, – then gave up, disposed of plate and cup and drifted to stand near a wall to indulge in one of my favorite pastimes, people watching. While I was engaged in watching the maneuvering of a man in a western-cut suit and bolero tie tentatively edging towards a lady in flower-printed skirt and peasant blouse, I was interrupted when this guy randomly walks up to me, beginning a conversation saying, “The power of your stare brought me to your side.” I mumbled a noncommittal reply, thinking, pleeeeese! How lame is that? The power of my stare! Then I hastily excused myself, turned on my heel, and headed straight for the doors searching my sweater pocket for my car keys. Yes, I bailed.
Not being a quitter, or perhaps just being a glutton for punishment, I later tried another round of social mingling. This time, I tried out a Super Single Saturday event. Different areas take turns hosting these monthly events, each with a particular theme. I went to one that had a luau theme, complete with imported dancers for entertainment, and another with a let’s see how many break-the-ice- get-to-know-you-games-we-can-play-in-an-hour theme. Unfortunately, the games were pretty lame, one in particular. We were sent to a room where pictures of various animals were taped to the walls. Our instructions were to “choose an animal and stand by the picture,” simple enough. I stood by the picture of an eagle because a cute guy in a polo shirt was there, and I hoped to start a conversation with him. And then they explained the rest of the activity, which was to “tell why you chose that animal.” Well, it would have been flattering, but I decided against giving my real reason for standing by the picture of the eagle and went with something about eagles having no boundaries. It sounded good at the time. I tried one more Super Saturday but gave up when the same people were there playing the exact same games. It was back to firesides for me. At least at those there was a chance of some spiritual enrichment.
After one particular fireside, during the meet and greet (or maybe it should be meat and greet?), I was trying to get past a couple of guys so I could talk to a lady I met at a singles Super Saturday event, and a bottleneck developed. So middle-aged balding guy says, “shall we dance?” in a lighthearted attempt to clear a path. Being polite, I pause to chat with him, and he handed me one of the Single’s Hotline Cards, and on the bottom, scrawled in ink, was his number –Icky, tacky, yuck! The conversation turned to the fact that I am widowed, and the next thing he asked was, “So are you sealed to your husband?” I thought, what a strange thing to ask, but answered, “Yes, I am.” And moments later, he excused himself and I continued on my way. Later, I came across other men who asked the same time-saving “are you sealed*” question. I guess they want to cut to the chase and only date women who are available to be their eternal companion – and I’m already taken.
Talking to men at these social gatherings was an education (and to be fair, I’m sure the men could say the same sorts of thing about the women they meet). I met one fellow who wasn’t divorced just yet, but was “checking out available women;” another whose former wife had a restraining order filed against him, but who told me he was “totally harmless;” and one man whose number one concern was not dating or marrying a woman who had mental problems — and apparently felt it was proper to inquire into my mental health; and there was the guy who wanted to know my age, because he only dated women who were at least ten years younger than himself. All of these confessions and questions made me think I had a “share your personal information and ask me strange questions” sign on my forehead. I think I would rather just skip this middle-aged meeting men thing, not that I was necessarily going to firesides and super Saturdays to meet men, but because I felt a stirring of the need to do something socially with someone of my own generation.
One small problem though, at this point, I didn’t really know how to go about it. Of course Kelly and I had friends that “we” used to do things with, but that has changed. I’m not invited to do the “couple” things we used to do — there is a certain awkwardness, and being an extra person is like being a wart at the end of a nose. It’s uncomfortable for everyone. Every now and then I still hang out with girlfriends, but you can only watch so many chick flicks before vicarious romance loses its allure, especially when there is zilch for romance in your own existence, and you feel like a dried up prune, as far as being a woman is concerned. Fitting in somewhere and having a social group I felt comfortable with wasn’t happening. Being the fifth wheel, or worse, doing things by myself was not appealing. However, the specter of ever looming loneliness pushed me out of my comfort zone and into the Twilight Zone of the Singles World again. I continued to torture myself with stilted conversation over punch and cookies; I felt uncertain, awkward, and painfully shy.
My next venture was a Halloween party; the invitation was posted on an Internet widow’s web page. I still didn’t know anyone in person, but I decided to be brave and daring and attend the party — and I don’t do Halloween. Courage came from the fact that I could wear a costume and hide my shyness behind a persona. So it was that in the persona of KyneWynn (from my medieval re-enactment hobby), arrayed in a simple, green, Italian dress with complicated sleeves, that I knocked on the door of an unknown house. The host, answering the door wearing a complete Egyptian Pharaoh costume, greeted me warmly and invited me in. And to my surprise, I had a great time, eating, laughing, and playing games with other widows and widowers — it was after midnight when I left, the latest I’d been out in months.
Emboldened by my success at the Halloween party, I decided to go to a New Year’s Eve dinner-dance that one of my new single girlfriends told me about. The room was decorated to resemble a big city skyline, with hundreds of white lights creating the desired silhouette; an enchanting effect. The dinner featuring a cordon-bleu entree and the accompanying conversation were good — I actually knew several of the people at my table. Then the tables were cleared, and the dance began. My protective mantle of shyness fell over me, and I slipped int a chair on the side lines, content to listen to the music and watch the dancers. Many of the songs reminded me of Kelly. He played guitar in a dance band for awhile, and I used to go with him, sit in the background, and listen to them play. Here, I was doing the same thing, but my reverie was interrupted with an invitation to dance. This was why I had come, to test the waters, so I accepted. Big Mistake. It was like junior high all over again, except this time I was actually asked to dance. It seemed as though I had five left feet, and I was so tense and nervous through the whole dance I could barely move. It was awful. . . . the gentleman though was very kind. I accepted one more dance invitation, trying to prove to myself that I could do this social thing, but the whole time I was dancing, I was crying inside because it was some other man, not Kelly. I felt clumsy and incompetent –it was such a contrast to the way I fit physically with Kelly; I knew how he moved, the feel of his hand on my back, holding me securely, the pleasure of looking up into his face, the scent of his aftershave holding a promise –whereas my current partner’s hand was placed loosely in the region of my hip, and instead of looking up at Kelly’s familiar face, I was nose to nose with a musk-wearing stranger. I was never so grateful for a song to end as that one. I left the dance, fighting the onset of migraine-induced nausea. Dancing was out, at least for now.
This was why I had come, to test the waters, so I accepted. Big Mistake. It was like junior high all over again, except this time I was actually asked to dance. It seemed as though I had five left feet, and I was so tense and nervous through the whole dance I could barely move. It was awful. . . . the gentleman though was very kind. I accepted one more dance invitation, trying to prove to myself that I could do this social thing, but the whole time I was dancing, I was crying inside because it was some other man, not Kelly. I felt clumsy and incompetent — it was such a contrast to the way I fit physically with Kelly; I knew how he moved, the feel of his hand on my back, holding me securely, the pleasure of looking up into his face, the scent of his aftershave holding a promise — whereas my current partner’s hand was placed loosely in the region of my hip, and instead of looking up at Kelly’s familiar face, I was nose to nose with a musk-wearing stranger. I was never so grateful for a song to end as that one. I left the dance, fighting the onset of migraine-induced nausea. Dancing was out, at least for now.
Time. It takes time to heal. I heard those words often during those first years, and I was finally ready to start believing them. For the next six months I kept my social activities firmly anchored in the midst of family, church, and old friends. The only singles world venturing I did was via the internet — and that was anonymous, emotionally safe, and even amusing. There’s nothing like reading a profile that describes someone as, “A bit run-down on the outside, but the motor still works fine,” or receiving emails from Romeo wannabes like the following:
how are you doing today is my pleasure to read your profile, I noticed that you are a very nice woman and a Gorgeous lady. wish I could be the one for you. am Honest, Loving, Caring, and Trustworthy, and am looking for who to spend the rest of my life with and love. I really cant stay lonely forever We need someone to laugh and share Dreams with.. I am a Good loving Christian man who believes in Faith and Miracle and I guess this is my faith to connect with you. I am well committed to God, and he has sent me to come to you and tell you my feelings maybe you will consider me and Accept me as your best friend, if more God will say. thanks…. don’t be shy to E‑mail or add me at firstname.lastname@example.org so that we can start getting to know each other. will be waiting for your reply. Take care babe God bless you.
I corrected the email and sent it back to him with my best wishes for him to find his “best friend” which definitely wasn’t me. I later found out that spammers use these introductions to troll for unwary women, lull them into a sense security, and then ask them for money. Eventually I discovered the chat room, and made some friends. We had random conversations and harmless flirting. The chat room was mostly amusement value, but it also led to my second, (and last, mark my words) dance experience.
I was chatting with a fellow from an area near my hometown and mentioned I would be headed there for a visit soon, and he invited me to meet him at a singles dance. Because we had developed a sort of rapport via chatting, and it had been eighteen months since my last attempt at going to a dance, I told him I’d come. My arrival was heralded by nervousness, a touch of excitement, and raw fear — which hadn’t been helped by the teasing I endured from my children about “going on a date” — I maintain it wasn’t a date, I was going solo, in my own vehicle to a dance, where I would meet someone. Not a date.
Mr. Internet looked somewhat different than his profile picture on the computer, and I suppose I did too. I had thought of him as being taller than he was, and younger. And he probably thought I was younger than my picture suggested, because everyone who meets me thinks I am younger than I am. The pictures were close enough likenesses that we recognized each other when we met in the parking lot. The music was decent, and we danced a few dances. I wasn’t having a panic attack, and my emotions were under control, all good signs. I wasn’t exactly enjoying myself, but it wasn’t pure torture either. Taking a break to have a drink of water, he told me he’d claim me for a waltz later as he was going to dance with the ladies who don’t always get asked. So while he was off performing his self-imposed duty, I was enjoying the music, which was actually pretty good. It was then a fellow bustled up to me — and that is the description of what he did — bustled, and asked me to dance. Away we went, and I being out of practice, stumbled a bit. I murmured an apology for my clumsiness, and he proclaimed, “Don’t worry, if you can walk, you can dance.” And then, to prove his point, he motored me all over the dance floor, then marched me back to my seat. After a couple of more dances with Mr. Internet, that had all the spark of dancing with one of my brothers, I was approached by a man clearly old enough to be my father.
Now, I like to dance with my Dad, but this? However, not wanting to be rude, I accepted his invitation. So there I was imprisoned in a dance embrace with Mr. Geriatric in the middle of a dance floor with the lights flashing, the speakers shrilling the Bee Gee’s, Staying Alive, staying alive, ahhh, ahhh, ahhh, ahhhh S-t-a-y-i-n–g A-l-i-v-e. . . .and my white-haired partner, nearly shouting to make himself heard, was telling me how he was back out on the dance floor only two weeks after his triple-by-pass heart surgery. What more could a girl want? I was just hoping he wouldn’t keel over then and there with a relapse. It was at that point I made a vow to myself: No more dances.
Again I returned to my safety-net of family, church, and old friends. For the most part I’ve been content with this arrangement. It helped that Mr. Pharaoh from the Halloween party and I became good friends; everyone should have at least one good friend who “gets” what it means to be widowed. Many people have suggested that it may be years before I’m ready to date or marry, or that I may never marry again. That thought saddens me. Maybe it would have been easier to contemplate if Kelly hadn’t loved me so deeply. Even though we had our difficult times, I always knew he loved me beyond belief. Knowing what it is to be loved like that makes it that much harder to be alone. It’s kind of a Catch-22. For a very long time I had little desire to socialize. I had to force myself to do anything. When Kelly died, that part of me died too.
Slowly, over time that changed, I’ve learned to maintain my equilibrium in social situations. Recently I’ve begun to attend some widow/widower’s parties (which definitely have a different feel to them than other “singles” gatherings I’ve attended), and I have had a great time conversing with intelligent men and women, comparing travel notes, vocations, education, and having fun. Introductions at these parties go something like this:
“So how long has it been for you?”
“Going on five years now.”
“How did he die?”
“His heart. It was sudden and unexpected.”
An instant rapport is achieved, and for a few moments the conversation is about being widowed, but then it moves on to other topics, and it all happens without the usual awkwardness that telling about Kelly’s death brings about.
Yes, I’ve come a long way baby. I don’t think I need to be married to be happy and have a good life. In fact, I would be okay with being alone for the rest of my life, but that isn’t what I want. I miss being married. I liked being married, and I would like to share the rest of my life with someone. An amazing thing about love is that it has the capacity, as it is freely given, to grow. We don’t have to love just one person in a lifetime, and I’m open to the possibility of one day falling in love again.
*There are references to activities and doctrine relative to my beliefs as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For more information about those references, please visit Mormon.org and click on the Beliefs tab.