The night after my boyfriend died, I lay awake in bed with my younger sister by my side, both of us in shock. I voiced out loud the realization that I’ll never be with anyone else ever again. Though she reassured me this wasn’t true, in the moment it felt so real and so completely unfair. One moment Phil and I were texting, making plans, and then, following an afternoon of dread of not knowing where he was, my worst fear had come true: He was suddenly gone forever at age 34.
In the months that followed, I’d forgotten what day it was and how much time had passed. Taking a shower was a small victory, and people around me would share seemingly normal exchanges that suddenly had little meaning to me. We were operating in completely different realities.
This January marked the one-year anniversary of Phil’s death, which felt like a big milestone. The passage of time alone isn’t enough; grief is real work. And in those 12 months, I did the work to heal, much of which was greatly informed by the loss of my mom at a young age. While I knew that Phil, our love, and his loss would always be a part of me, I was ready to dip my toe back into the dating pool. Though I was unsure of what dating would look like as a young widow, I was hopeful to start this next chapter.
Pre-Phil, I’d done lots of online dating, from the days of OkCupid to Tinder and Bumble. For me, it wasn’t a strange, unknown world—I’d gone on plenty of first dates with guys I’d met on apps, after doing extensive sleuthing. Because of this, I didn’t feel like the stereotypical widow à la Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle, so detached from modern dating that I had to re-learn how it worked. I was eager and cautious all at once, knowing that the scariest moment would come when I would have to tell the new guy I was dating that my last relationship had ended in a major loss.
In March 2020, though, everything changed. When shelter-in-place orders went into effect, I knew that things would be different. But, like most everyone else, I didn’t know how completely changed everything would be. I wondered: How would dating even work now? I was frustrated and angry. Last year felt like a complete loss, and the possibility of another year lost hurt to even think about. Then, a friend of mine offered encouraging advice: that perhaps dating in a pandemic could be a good thing. It could be like an old-world courtship, taking things slower in a way that was less stressful. I liked this perspective, and it helped me feel less hopeless in a big, scary world. Yet I still wondered: How could I move forward with my life amidst all this uncertainty? Which, as it turns out, was a question that I wasn’t alone in asking.
The early weeks of shelter-in-place, I went back and forth in my approach to online dating. First I felt extra cautious, but then my mood shifted. What else did I have to lose? I decided to re-download the apps I’d used before—Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge. It was true I was a changed person now.
Being a widow was a part of me, but it didn’t define me.
When I recrafted my dating profiles, I decided to leave that part out. I knew if I found someone I connected with and it progressed, it would come up naturally when the time was right. Yet that future, hypothetical conversation still freaked me out.
When crafting my profile, I tried to subtly acknowledge the pandemic, simply stating, “These are weird times,” and that I was looking for someone to laugh with and talk about real-life stuff. I updated my photos, being mindful not to use any that were related to Phil—not just ones taken with him but also ones taken of me by him. It was a bizarre process, but it’s what I had to do. As I began swiping, I was surprised how split it was between guys who acknowledged the state of the world and those who didn’t—but it was still the early days.
When I matched with someone and the conversation progressed, I couldn’t help but smile. I looked forward to these small interactions in a way that I hadn’t before the pandemic. Like many, I had friends and family to FaceTime with and roommates to chat with in person. But connecting with someone completely new felt both thrilling and less scary than before. There was no pressure to meet because we were in a pandemic, all of us together.
While swiping through various dating apps the past seven months hasn’t led to any serious relationships, I don’t regret it at all. Even being able to text someone or falling hard for an internet crush sparks joy for me these days. Conversations with someone from a dating app can now progress in ways that they might not have before; talking about more serious topics is easier because there’s uncertainty around every corner. The pandemic has put so much in perspective, it’s hard not to reflect on what we want.
I started off this March thinking that the dilemma I was facing as a widow attempting to date during a pandemic would be particular to just me. Looking back now, I was wrong. This want for connection, to find your person even in the great unknown, is a universal feeling. It’s as though we’ve all lost our lives as we know it. I have no idea what my next chapter in love and dating looks like—but what I do know is that the best thing I can do is surrender to the ebbs and flows of it all. In a way, I learned a lot about surrendering to the unknown when I lost Phil last year. Now I know I’m not alone. For once, this is a collective experience that we’re all trying to figure out.