Dating after loss isn’t easy. If you’ve done it, you know how awkward and anxiety-producing it can be. If you’ve been single as a bereaved parent, you’ve probably felt unsure, hesitant, and maybe even a little terrified of dating. After my daughter’s stillbirth, dating was the last thing on my mind. I knew that eventually, I would have to try if I wanted to find a new relationship. But there was so much to think about.
I’ve written before about grieving as a single parent. Just as nothing can prepare you for the pain of losing a child, not much compares to entering the dating scene as a grieving parent.
“This One Time My Baby Died”
Deciding when to divulge that my daughter was stillborn was the most anxiety-producing aspect of dating after loss for me. I spent a lot of time internally debating over it. Was this a first date, second date, or never-to-be-shared piece of my history? How would I bring it up? What would I say? And what would the reaction be?
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I didn’t go on a single date until two years later. I didn’t feel ready. My friends, though, had actually started an online dating profile for me. They’d cajoled and encouraged so long that I was tired of making excuses for why I couldn’t do it.
After exchanging several messages, I geared up to meet a man who seemed to have potential. He asked about future plans right away. Did I want kids? he wondered.
“Well, yes,” I confessed. “Two years ago, my first child was stillborn. I would love to try again.”
To his credit, Date #1 handled this with an appropriate amount of sympathy. His “I’m so sorry” was genuine, and he didn’t seem awkward or uncomfortable. He did launch into a discussion about names for our future children, though, which was a little awkward. Then there were a lot of too early references to me as his “sweetie,” and “honey.” By the end of the first week, it was clear that we were moving on different timelines.
Even though it didn’t work out, I’m grateful to #1 for making my first foray into dating after loss much less painful than I’d feared it would be.
Trouble When He Walked In
Date #2 was a different story. His tongue-in-cheek profile photo and the first message he sent warned: “this guy is trouble.” I’m a big proponent of listening to your intuition, but, sometimes, I second guess mine when the thing it’s warning me about also seems like fun.
Date #2 was handsome, funny, outdoorsy, and self-absorbed (just my type, of course). Our connection was easy, intense, and obvious to casual observers. Waiters assumed we were already a couple and teased us about being lovebirds.
As we hiked through a beautiful old-growth forest on our fourth date discussing our histories, I decided to tell him about Zoë.
“I don’t like to hear that,” he replied as I told him the short version of events. As an afterthought, he added an obligatory, “I’m sorry.”
I could see the discomfort in his eyes. Distance descended between us. I’d half-expected this to be the result of sharing my loss all along. Things had been going so well, though, I’d forgotten it was a possibility.
Things were never quite the same with #2. We saw each other once or twice more before he dropped off the map completely. While I told myself I’d known better, it still hurt. It was the first real wound to my healing heart after Zoë’s death.
I was blessed to have the support of a dear friend who reminded me that I’d survived worse than this and that it wasn’t my fault. If he couldn’t handle the reality of my life, he wasn’t “the one.”
Worthy of Love
On what would’ve been Zoë’s fourth birthday, I unexpectedly met someone “the old fashioned way” — by being in the right place at the right time. At a secluded retreat center in a pristine natural setting, we ran into each other all weekend. He’d already overheard me talk about my daughter’s stillbirth. He was mature, compassionate, empathetic. He had experienced loss, too — most recently of his parents.
By the time I met him, I’d internalized my friend’s advice that if someone couldn’t handle the truth, then they weren’t for me. I still felt anxious about sharing my loss, though. I still feel some anxiety every time I have to tell someone new. But I know now that their reaction has very little to do with me, and quite a lot to do with their level of comfort with their own vulnerabilities.
Dating After Loss
If there’s one piece of advice I can give you about dating after loss, it would be to know that you (and your story of loss) are worthy of love. Anyone who doesn’t also believe that isn’t the right person for you.
It helps, too, to prepare for any and all reactions to your history with baby or child loss. I’ve learned that you can’t predict who will react with sensitivity and who won’t. That’s not your fault. Here’s a good mantra to repeat when others react inappropriately: “It’s not about me.”
I encourage you to have a support system of friends, family, and/or a therapist with whom you can process, decompress, and laugh about your experiences in the dating world. You’ll likely have awkward moments, total flops, and bad dates. With luck, you’ll also have good dates, real conversations, and genuine connections in your search for love.
What has your experience been with dating after loss? How did you decide when and how to share your story of loss?
Robynne Knight is a writer, educator, and acupuncturist who lost her daughter, Zoë, to stillbirth in 2011. She is passionate about sharing her experience with grief and loss, and helping others find growth and healing through her writing, private practice, and sharing support and resources through The Zoë Project.