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Finding love after loss – whether a loss from death, divorce, or breakup – is challenging. I have the dubious honor of having expertise in all three. Here is my story.
I was 28 years old when my husband leveled these soul-crushing words at me from across our dining room table:
I was blindsided. Numb. I knew no other life than the one we had built together since meeting on our college campus 10 years before.
I didn’t know how to be alone. I didn’t know who I was without him. Shoot, I didn’t even know how to balance a checkbook without him.
But I learned.
Love after loss of marriage
While friends in my age group navigated wedding venues and floral arrangements, I navigated divorce papers and solo apartment leases. I learned how to manage my own finances, how to relish coming home to a space that was all mine, and how to confidentially ask for a “table for one,” while ignoring the second menu inevitably placed across from me.
It took nearly 10 years from the day those life-changing words turned my heart inside out, but I also learned how to be grateful to him for ending our marriage when he did.
I had, after all, a second chance to find what I called “real” love — the kind of love when you just know, the kind of love when falling out of it is unthinkable.
But finding love after loss of marriage means learning to trust again.
Finding love after loss of trust
What I couldn’t quite figure out was how to trust again. In the decade of dating that followed my big heartbreak, I did manage to fall in love, or what I thought was love, anyway. But if someone showed signs of loving me in return, I manufactured metaphorical walls to climb over, hoops to jump through, and tests to fail.
Convinced that I was searching for “real” love, I couldn’t see that I was engaged in the active sabotage of my own love life.
Then, one simmering summer evening, under the flickering fluorescent lights of a Chicago dive bar, Jeff kissed me for the first time. And everything changed.
I just knew.
Looking up into his kind, hazel eyes, I warned him:
Then he kissed me again.
With Jeff, there were no dating games or arbitrary rules. He didn’t wait three days to reach out or fret about things moving too fast. Instead, he texted while on his way home from our first date to tell me that he wanted to turn right back around and see me again.
When I traveled to Italy just a few weeks after that first date, I spent hours on a balcony overlooking the famous medieval square in Siena with my phone pressed to my ear, fascinated by the way Jeff’s subtle Philadelphia accent would grow more pronounced when he was winning one of our debates, which, it turns out, he would nearly always win.
Still, in Italy, I woke up one morning feeling downright ridiculous because, even though I was finally back in my favorite city of Siena, a place that I had desperately missed since spending three months within its medieval walls some 15 years before, I had spent the entire night wishing that I was back in Chicago curled up on the couch with Jeff.
It was fitting then, that while I fitfully slept, he had sent a text stating that he couldn’t stop thinking of me, adding that I should listen to the song Waste by Phish, which contains the lyrics “come waste your time with me.”
I messaged back to tell him that I had never met anyone with such an uncanny ability to read my mind.
It was impossible not to fall in love with Jeff and his irrepressible optimism. It was, however, a little more difficult to love his relentless, inherent morning-person disposition. As a dedicated night owl, mornings for me soon involved covering my head with a pillow to drown out the sound of Jeff’s pre-sunrise, shower-time concerts for one.
Sleep deprivation aside, as that simmering summer turned into fall, Jeff fulfilled his desire to make me as happy as he could.
I was so happy that I almost forgot to sabotage everything. Almost.
It was at Jeff’s annual Halloween bash that I chose to pick our first fight. This meant attempting to be angry with a man who had crammed his six-foot-three-inch frame into a far-too-small Canadian-flag onesie.
As I tried to tap into the rage of all my past wounds, I looked up into those hazel eyes, and I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be mad at him. I couldn’t even remember why I was mad at him.
It helped that Jeff seemed to understand. Without judgment or anger, he assured me, with all the seriousness a 40-year-old man wearing a onesie can muster, that I could trust him completely and that he wasn’t going to leave me. Ever.
So, rather than spend the evening fighting, I told him that very night that I loved him for the first time. He immediately reciprocated.
Some weeks later, as the first Chicago snowstorm settled winter in around us, I nestled my head into the spot on his chest that seemed to be made for me, and I let all of my fears go. I promised myself that if the worst happened — if one day I woke up and he was gone — I would never regret a single day that I spent loving him.
Finding love after death
It was Valentine’s Day when Jeff finally went to the doctor with a nagging cough and difficulty swallowing. We thought he would walk out the door with tips to better manage some sort of acid reflux condition.
Instead, he walked out with a devastating diagnosis: Stage IV esophageal cancer.
Before cancer, Jeff and I didn’t know about CT Scans, MRIs, endoscopies, portable feeding pumps, or chemotherapy side effects. We didn’t know the rapturous hope that comes with the possibility of new clinical trials, or the gut-wrenching despondency that comes with the news that the cancer has doubled down, invading the lungs, pancreas, and spine.
The only thing that didn’t change in our lives, was Jeff’s irrepressible optimism. Even as his lungs shut down, he found a way to make me belly laugh every day. Even as medicine clouded his encyclopedic mind, he entertained friends from his hospital bed by seeing how many Oscar best picture winners he could remember — in order. He made it to the year 1956.
Even as doctors started to use language like “quality of life,” he proposed to me with a family ring that he had hidden away somewhere in his covers.
“Marrying you will give me one more thing to fight for,” he said, with tears tangled in his long lashes.
I put the ring onto my finger with equal parts joy and heartbreak.
So, in true optimist fashion, we launched into what should have been a months-long, binge-watching marathon. But, as we watched TV together in his hospital bed, wrapped up in a fuzzy blanket that was a gift from his friends, I intuitively knew that it would be the last time that he ever held me.
There is only one way to send out a man like Jeff — and that is to throw an epic party. The visitors’ lounge of Northwestern Hospital filled the next day with dozens of Jeff’s friends and family members, who gathered together to say goodbye to Jeff and to toast a life well lived over wine and bourbon.
Sometime during the party, Jeff woke up for the last time.
And here I thought I knew rage before.
I held his hand, stifled my anger at the world, and looked into those beautiful, hazel eyes.
Jeff died on the afternoon of June 4th, not even four months after his diagnosis. He was a force of nature, the giver of the best hugs on the planet, and an educator known to his colleagues as the “child whisperer” for his ability to calm even the most distressed student.
In the days after his death, I wandered around the apartment that we had hastily moved into for its proximity to the hospital, tracing my fingers over the spines of the nearly 400 books stacked on his shelves.
Jeff was a man who lived without reservations and loved without conditions, and I only hope that I can do the same.
In the end, I don’t regret a single one of the 296 days that I spent loving him.
I continue to search for a person to spend my life with, but finding love after loss, in this case, means learning to love myself.
About the Author
Hi! I’m Jen!
I’m a freelance writer and travel blogger who quit my nine-to-five after my fiancé, Jeff, died of cancer at the age of 40. When he died, I realized that life is just too short to delay our dreams. Since my dream was to travel and write, I now travel and write full-time. Today I wear hiking boots instead of heels and collect experiences instead of things.