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  • Writer's pictureCaroline Trustey

Be My Valentine

Say all you want about Valentine’s Day. Maybe you hate it, maybe you love it. Maybe you think it’s a Hallmark Holiday that’s a total scam. Maybe you live for those (let’s be honest, really nasty) heart-shaped boxes of chocolate. We’re all entitled to our own opinions (just some people's are wrong…kidding…kinda).

I, for one, love Valentine’s Day. As someone whose love language is words of affirmation, what better than a day devoted to telling the most important people in our lives how much we love and appreciate them? Have I spent the past 5 Valentine’s Days telling this to a boyfriend? Not so much. But my mom makes a GREAT valentine (this year, she sent me EIGHT pints of ice cream. Kris is the best Valentine I’ll ever have. Dad was a great one, too. One year my dad sent me flowers telling me I was one of his 3 favorite daughters. Another year he sent me flowers and said "these are from dad. Unless Jake forgot Valentine's Day, then these are from Jake and tell him he owes me and he's in trouble." Like I said, I love Valentine's Day). And, I really love reminding my friends that I love them. If you come at me with a hug, I’ll recoil and tense up. Not my love language. Sending a long text/letter/phone call with a list of reasons I love you? That’s how I show love. Do I think it needs to be confined to one day a year? Absolutely not. But how special to have a day where we all choose love over hate.

My favorite Valentine’s Day ever was the year Jake made boxed mac and cheese for dinner. He had consulted with his sisters on what to make and they had suggested great ideas - fajitas, chicken and broccoli ziti, etc. - but he decided to trust his

gut. “I know you,” he told me, “better than anyone else.” He was spot on. Here’s a cute pic of him that night. Love doesn’t have to be roses and fancy and extravagant. To me, love is a 99 cent box of mac and cheese with your best friend. (For some immediacy in my writing, it took me until right now to start tearing up. It’s been 5 years and without fail, talking about Jake still makes me cry. Every. Single. Time.)

Which brings me to what I actually want to write about today: Dating after loss. I recently had a book recommended to me by a friend who also lost her boyfriend. The book is called The Hot Young Widows Club by Nora McInerny. When it was recommended, I thought to myself, “but I’m not a widow. Widows are old ladies. Widows were married to their partner. Widows sit at home and are sad all the time. I’m not a widow.” Then, I started reading. Nora’s definition of a widow is anyone who has lost the person with whom they intended to spend the rest of their life; I have reflected on this. A LOT. And cried about this. A LOT. And reflected on this some more. And talked to my counselor about this. Am I…a widow? I read this book over and over and over. I have never felt as seen as I did by this book. I joined the HYWC. I joined their sub groups - Wids Under 30 and Wids with No Kids. I went all in. I found a community that got me. For so long (1989 days, to be exact), I thought I didn’t have a place. There’s no word for someone who loses their college boyfriend?! And then I found my people. So here I am, I became a wid (sounds way cooler than widow) at the age of 21, embraced it at the age of 26. Now back to the point. How does a wid like me date?

The short answer: it’s really hard. I mean let’s be real, dating as an adult is hard in general. The apps suck, we’re in a pandemic so meeting people “organically” is off the table (not that I was successful at that pre-covid, but I appreciate having an excuse now), and none of my friends seem to set me up with my *second* soulmate (I know I sound spoiled since I already have a soulmate in Jake, and I feel like I deserve this) like always happens in the movies (thanks @friends). I won’t say dating as a wid is harder, but it definitely doesn’t make things easier. I play this fun game where I compare everyone I meet to Jake. But it’s a no-win game. Because if you’re too similar to Jake, I write you off because I don’t want to replace Jake. And if you’re too different from Jake, I write you off because I believe Jake taught me what I deserve in a partner, and clearly you’re not it. Healthy, right? This is what my counselor calls “avoidant behavior.” What it really boils down to is anxious attachment - I am terrified of ending up with someone who leaves me (i.e., dies). I’ve done that once, I wouldn’t undo it (obviously I wish Jake didn’t die, but what I mean is that I wouldn’t not date Jake in order to avoid the pain), but I also don’t want to subject myself to pain AGAIN. So instead, I avoid it.

All of this said, I want to end up with someone. I see a future with a spouse, with (a lot of?!) kids, with a family, with a dog. This is where I see happiness and I won’t pretend it's not. I recently began seeing someone new (he’s not on social media…so hopefully he doesn’t see this because let’s be honest this is a lot weirder than the normal way of announcing it to the world, like an instagram post…and it’s still really early. But also, imagine if I wrote this post and didn’t mention him and then years from now he sees it and is like “weren’t we together then? Why did you act like you were single?” Welcome to the brain of someone with anxiety!!!). Let’s call him X. Like I said, it’s new. As you can imagine, a lot of my time in counseling is spent talking about going on dates with X, while also missing Jake and loving Jake. It’s a constant balancing act, but I'm not even coordinated enough to touch my toes.

(This video makes me laugh… about people not on social media)

First, it was deciding if, and when, and how I was going to tell X about my family and Jake. The family stuff is easier. Usually by a 2nd or 3rd date, the topic of family arises. By then, I’ve decided if I want to see the person again. If I don’t, then I play a fun game where I pretend my family is alive - not a lie (totally a lie). But why make things uncomfortable when I’ve already decided it’s probably not going to continue, right? But in this case, I knew I wanted to see X again. So shoot, lying was off the table. When the dreaded family question came up, I prefaced with “to be honest, family stuff is complicated…” and then quickly spit it all out and changed the subject. We’ve since talked about it in more detail because it appears X isn’t one to avoid discomfort. Good for him.

Talking about Jake is harder. It’s a little taboo to bring up exes AND in my heart, Jake isn’t my ex. I can’t really explain it, but he’s still the love of my life? I talked about this with my counselor a lot. Like for a whole session. That’s 60 minutes of talking about how I was going to tell this to X. Me, working through all the worst case scenarios. Guess what happened when I told X? He said, “tell me about Jake.” Not, “how did he die?” Not, “oh…”

What a sappy Instagram.. Love makes us do weird things

Just a desire to know more about this special person. He gave me NONE of the scenarios I worked up in my head. I can’t say I casually mentioned it. My direct quote was, “my counselor thinks I’m deceiving you by leaving out a really important detail of my life. In college I dated the most amazing human. His name is Jake. We were going to get married. I love him. Five years ago he died unexpectedly from a medical problem and my world shattered. I just feel the need to tell you this. I’m in a good place to date, but I need you to know that Jake is a really important part of my life.” And I decided, it’s okay that it wasn’t cute or perfectly worded. It was authentic and jumbly, and that’s how my heart feels about the whole dating situation.

So now what? In counseling last week, I made a comment to my counselor. I told her, “I’m not afraid of X leaving, I’m afraid of myself wanting to stay. Because then, what if I have to choose?” She asked me to keep working through this thought. “What if I don’t choose Jake? I can’t let go of him. I’m not ready.”

My counselor reflected back to me, “But Caroline, you don’t have to choose. There is no choice to be made.”

And that’s when I lost it. “Thats whats not fair. I never got to choose. The choice to choose was taken away from me.”

I feel like this is a depressing place to end this post, but to be honest, this is where I am at. I am learning to sit in the discomfort and the pain of not being able to choose. I am trusting that there is room in my heart for Jake and for others.

Valentine's Day, 2001

Happy Valentine’s Day. Tell someone who you wouldn’t normally tell that you love them. And eat some good chocolate, not that nasty kind that comes in a heart-shaped box.

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Feb 14, 2021

I’m sending you all the hugs I have. No words for all of this....waino was my first love as well. It took a few years and had to kiss a few frogs but I found another love in my life.... you will too. Xoxo

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