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I Thought I Learned All the Life Lessons When He Died

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Yep, I thought I learned all the life lessons when he died. I was wrong. When my first attempt at love post-cancer fell apart, I realized I have much more learning to do.

There will be people who enter your life for a short season. These short-timers often come into your world with an intensity that belies the very brevity of their stay.

They walk with you in lockstep, inside jokes bubble effortless between you, your lives collide and unite in a way that seems so synchronistic that it can’t be an accident.

It hurts when they leave. Whether you ask them to go to protect your heart, or whether they suddenly disappear as quickly as they arrived, the absence of that intense connection is destabilizing.

But in re-gaining your footing, there is so much opportunity to learn.

I decided to find love again two years after my fiancé died

My late partner was a short-timer in my life, though not by choice.

I think he even stayed longer on this Earth than he should have, laboring for breath through cancer-riddled lungs because he wanted so fiercely to live.

Jeff wanted to build the family that we started planning before his diagnosis — a diagnosis that came on our first (and only) Valentine’s Day together.

In the end, I had the opportunity to hold his hand for just 296 intense days that were filled with laughter and tears, love and death.

Closeup of Jeff holding my hand after he proposed
Holding Jeff’s hand the day he proposed from his death bed

Two years after Jeff died, I wrote that watching him die taught me how to live.

Immediately after his death, I quit the corporate job that I hated and booked a one-way ticket abroad. I traveled through the world solo for a year, walked the Camino de Santiago, and started my own freelance writing business so that I could continue to travel while working remotely.

The thing is, I like having a partner. I love being in love. I still want that family that Jeff and I planned.

So, I did something else on that second anniversary of my late fiancé’s death. I decided that it was time to seek a partner again.

I rolled into his world in a campervan

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I spent a lot of time grieving and healing on my journey throughout the world. There was meditation, yoga, spirit mediums, eastern astrologists, journaling, talking, saying his name out loud, crying. You name it, I tried it.

  • Chiang Dao, Thailand

I even tried a relationship once before acknowledging that I wasn’t ready.

So when I determined that I was really ready again, I was honestly cocky enough to believe that I had learned enough about life and loss that the next person I chose to love would be the right person.

Just three months after I opened my heart for business, I rolled through the beautiful city of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho on the second day of a month-long road trip in a rented campervan, and I met a man who seemed to walk with me in lockstep.

At the end of that road trip, I returned to Idaho and, essentially, never left.

Living in a van in the front yard
The van is literally on this poor guy’s lawn

And then I got sick. And it all ended as quickly as it began.

I did leave, occasionally. I would leave to visit my family six hours away in Washington State. And I left when I got sick.

On March 7, I started a period that just never stopped. I bled for more than two months before I had surgery to remove a fibroid (a non-cancerous tumor) that had grown into my vaginal cavity.

When the action of making love was removed from our relationship, there was not enough feeling of love to withstand the distance, the sickness, the differences between us that were suddenly and glaringly exposed.

For instance, I want to build a family. Halfway through my 40th year on this planet, I realize that building a family may look very different. Adoption, perhaps.

The man in Idaho was done building a family. With two grown kids that are having kids of their own and a no-regrets vasectomy, he wasn’t bending on this one. So I compromised on that dream and started lobbying for a dog.

With my parents’ poodle

Shortly after my surgery, I spent a night sobbing into my pillow in my childhood bedroom in Washington. I had finally acknowledged to myself that I did not feel with this man in Idaho anything close to the love I felt with Jeff.

Stephen R. Covey wrote in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People that:

In other words, love is a choice. It is work. It is sacrifice. The feeling that it brings, when things are good, is the reward.

I needed to make a choice.

But I didn’t make a choice

Rather than doing the hard (and right) thing and ending the relationship, I chose to fight for it. I texted him a song to break the silence that had grown between us, and then I drove to Idaho to try and work it out.

To make a long story short (I will tell it soon), he chose to go the opposite way.

In fairness, he chose for us. And he made the right choice.

I was forcing something because, with the benefit of hindsight, I chose to fall in love with the idea of love and to overlook the fact that my needs were not being met in that relationship, and that I had compromised on a dream that isn’t one I’m ready to let go of just yet.

It was no accident

There is a reason that these short-lived but profound connections feel at the time as though they cannot be an accident. I don’t think they are.

A sunset in Coeur d’Alene just before our breakup (doesn’t it look like a heart?!)

Whether they are a friend or a lover, a person who enters your life briefly but intensely will bring with them a life lesson for you. If you choose to dig into that lesson and take its learnings with you, then that person left you with a gift.

I am grateful for both of my intense but brief connections. One taught me how to live and how to choose love with the right person, and one taught me that it’s OK to let go when it is not the right person.

Sometimes even the most intense connections are just meant to be — as the saying goes — short and sweet.

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.

Resources for Grieving


Grief Works: An app to guide you through your grief


Hot Young Widows Club: Stories of love & loss on Instagram; also a book


Modern Loss: Essays & resources to navigate life after death


Good Mourning Podcast: Authentic conversations about loss


Soaring Spirits: Peer-based support programs for widowed men & women


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