when a partner dies Illustration by Sophi Gullbrants

Suffering the death of a partner is part of many people’s experience—so common yet so distinct to each partnership and to each person. In this three-part series, Love and Loss, we bring you three stories from people who lost their partner to illness: first how they fell for each other, then how death separated them, then the navigation through the foggy landscape that followed. If you’ve experienced a loss and think your story could help someone else, feel free to share it in the comments section. 

Joy

 

The first time I saw Fred he was 14 and I was 16. I didn’t date in high school. I was a romantic and I had guy friends, but I wasn’t comfortable in my body. I didn’t go to any of the dances and not because I didn’t want to, but I was just dorky. By the time I got to college, academics were my thing and I had tons of guy friends, but I wasn’t comfortable with my sexuality. I wanted love and I wanted to experience all that, but I didn’t really date in college, either. 

I met Fred [the second time] not too long after I had sex for the first time. He was 19 and I was 21 and we were together ever since. We had our good years and our bad years. We had a good, normal sex life. We had a great relationship. A longterm relationship with another person is a real accomplishment. To make it through the years, you have to make a real commitment to that. So, we did. 

When it’s right for a [couple], I think it’s one of the best co-creations that can happen. It combines the best of what human beings can be. But you really have to want it. It doesn’t just happen, from my experience.  

We had one child. That’s what we wanted. Fred and I are both from big families. I really wanted to be a writer and he was starting out from scratch in banking. We were both ambitious in our careers. We both wanted to be good parents. Our daughter left the nest fairly early in our age category. We were in our mid-late forties when she went to college and we thought we had the world open to us. 

At 51, Fred was diagnosed with advanced stage colorectal cancer. So that put a lilttle damper on our sex life, as you can imagine, but it didn’t put a damper on our affection. In fact, we grew closer, but the whole idea of a couple on their own, free of kids, traveling the world, and having wild sex in fancy hotels on the beach and all that stuff didn’t quite materialize. 

I felt like a layer was taken off of me. Every time my heart beat, it frickin’ hurt, like a stabbing pain.

That last year, I basically had to stop my career. I had a cookbook come out just as he went in hospice. I put the promotion of that on hold and devoted myself, along with my two sisters, to the care of him and it transformed me in a way. I weirdly grew closer to him and realized what a relationship could be. Sexuality is one part of a relationship and physicality is another part, kindness is another part, being willing to be pissed off is another part. He died the day after my 60th birthday, he really waited and then he went.

My husband was sick for six years and he died at home at age 57 surrounded by our family. 

What changed is losing the little texts back and forth, the flirtation, all the little words and little cues that couples have between one another—they literally vanished overnight. I don’t think people realize what they have in that regard. It’s impossible for us to realize unless we have a catastrophic loss. [These things] become so much a part of the fabric of our lives. 

My husband died in August 2017 and I literally felt raw. I felt like a layer was taken off of me. Every time my heart beat, it frickin’ hurt, like a stabbing pain. At times I thought I was having a heart attack. I started researching about Broken Heart Syndrome, it’s a real thing. 

My daughter is hearing me go on about my Broken Heart Syndrome and that December she says to me “Mom, I think you should go on Match.” She goes, “You’re not meant to be alone”. I want to be clear: A lot of people are fine on their own. We all need to know who we are and what matters to us. I really love men. I was very close with my dad, I really adored [him]. I love the banter between men and women, I like to talk about careers, I like to cook together, I like being in concert with somebody. So, I listened to my daughter and I went on Match. 

I decided I wanted to pay for whichever dating site I chose because I wanted a gatekeeper of some kind and I thought if somebody is going to pay they’re going to be somewhat serious. I was ready for anything. I took it seriously. I put dorky photos up of myself. 

I had Broken Heart Syndrome, and something about Howard’s voice soothed it. 

I went on seven dates. They were decent, nice guys, but the dates were tough. It wasn’t even the fault of the men. There were guys who were full of themselves, but even with the very earnest guys I couldn’t help thinking ‘I had this handsome husband’…I mean, all kinds of things go through your head. 

The 8th date was this guy, Howard, that kept coming up on Match. What got me on his profile, which cracked me up, he wrote “If you contact me I will respond.” and “I’m monogamous.” I thought “Okay, well, that works for me.”

They had to have children. I’m a mom and grandma and I figured someone with kids would be a person who would understand some of the requirements that would be necessary. He was a financial advisor, so was my husband. I met him in a coffee shop in Princeton and that’s where I say we met now cause I can’t believe we met online. But we met and he walked in and we have not stopped talking since. 

We have great sexual chemistry. Who would’ve thought at our age? I’m 62 and he’s 66. I feel ageless right now. The banter is there, the chemistry is there. Someone to wake you up in the morning. I had this heartache thing going on, the Broken Heart Syndrome, and something about his voice soothed it. 

I made a really specific point of going to grief therapy. I thought that was really important before I met Howard and after I met Howard to be clear on processing that loss. I also really made sure that my family was incorporated into our life but more importantly that Fred has been incorporated into our lives. 

Fred is buried across the street. I live in a rural area of New Jersey, across the street from a 300-year-old cemetery. I’ve always thought that the cemetery has protected our house and Fred is buried there now. Howard has gone to meet Fred. I introduced Howard to Fred on Father’s Day. 

We will at some point have a commitment ceremony. To be married legally at our ages may not be prudent financially at this point, but we will absolutely have a commitment ceremony. We’re heading towards retirement age, so we have to be pragmatic. I would like to cohabitate. I would like to have Howard be a worthy successor to a fabulous man.

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