What losing my boyfriend when I was only 30 taught me about grief
It’s been over 12 months since the moment the ground beneath me seemed to crumble and my life was forever changed. It was January 15th, 2019, an ordinary Tuesday, but I had a bad feeling in my gut that whole day. I hadn’t heard from my boyfriend, Phil, since 10:31 a.m., but I carried on as normal because that’s what I thought I should do. I couldn’t focus at work and I tried to distract myself as the day wore on by going through the motions of my regular routine—responding to emails, making small talk at work, Skyping with my therapist, seeing friends for dinner. And then the unimaginable happened, and I was plunged into grief.
When you don’t hear back from your boyfriend for 12 hours, your mind goes to the worst possible scenario: He’s dead. “He can’t be!” another voice in your head says—after all, just because you don’t hear back from someone you love for hours on end doesn’t mean they’re completely gone. It feels erratic to think that way. But as I found out, sometimes it isn’t.
As the night wore on, the feeling in my gut got worse. I felt nauseous and light-headed. An hour later, I got the call. He was gone. I braced myself as I sat down on my bed but I started shaking, and I knew I needed to do something. It all felt unreal, but people needed to be informed—I needed to call my parents, for one thing. The days and weeks ahead were a messy blur of tears, heavy conversations, half pints of ice cream and restless, sleepless nights.
It’s been just over a year since Phil passed away. In that time, I’ve done a lot of grief work—from talk therapy and joining an online support group for widows, to being more intentional with how and who I spend my time with. Losing my mom at the age of six and working through that grief for over two decades prepared me for losing Phil, as I knew that grief is work. It’s not just the passage of time. You don’t get over it or move on just because a year goes by. You have to face the darkest moments and ride out the rollercoaster of emotions.
I knew that grief wasn’t just sadness, but I’d forgotten that it can creep up in the sneakiest of ways.
Throughout the year, I tried to lean in to all the things I was feeling, as uncomfortable as they were. I was used to sadness and tears, but anger masked as anxiety was a new emotion for me. For parts of my first year of grief, I felt angry at everyone, including Phil. It was such a foreign feeling, but I found that journaling, going on short runs, and the classic—screaming into a pillow—seemed to help. Grieving didn’t happen in linear stages, but if I was angry, I sat with it and did the same for sadness and loneliness, too. Accepting and working through these feelings was exhausting, to say the least. But it helped me deal with my grief in a productive way.
Being transparent with how I’m feeling has been key in all parts of my life—with friends, family, roommates, and coworkers. You never know what post-grief experiences might trigger. I was anxious for the first bachelorette party and wedding I went to as a widow, for instance. But I was able to get through both with a solid support system and by taking it moment by moment.
I also learned that after the worst thing happens, everything else in life becomes a lot more clear. In the moments after Phil’s death, my brain was moving a mile a minute. Though likely due to the adrenaline of an incredibly traumatic experience, I felt more sure of myself and how I operated in the world in terms of what I wanted. In those early moments, there were decisions that had to be made, including who I wanted to surround myself with and how I wanted to spend my days. That adrenaline and sense of self carried on beyond those early weeks of shock into my year of grief and the person I am now. I feel stronger in saying no and in making hard decisions. I get out of bed every morning, even though sometimes I don’t feel like it, because I have a purpose and a routine. The experience of losing Phil was a huge wake-up call: Life really is short. I feel more connected to my family now than ever before. I cherish the friends and support in my life because without them, I couldn’t have made it through.
But not all friendships can survive grief, which has been a painful but real lesson. People have drifted in and out of my life in the last year. Adult friendships are hard enough, and an unexpected loss can throw a huge curveball into that dynamic. Sometimes people disappear because they don’t know how to help or what to say. They retreat because they’re worried of saying the wrong thing or aren’t ready to talk about the hard stuff themselves. Looking back now, though, I know the people who showed up for me are meant to be here. Though others’ responses to this major loss were initially confusing and made me angry, I’ve since learned to come to peace with it: Everyone processes grief differently, and that’s okay.
Grief isn’t a straight line. There’s no formula for getting through it. It creeps up on you in the middle of the night, or when you’re driving to the grocery store, or when you’re sitting at your desk.
It’s inconvenient and annoying and a huge part of loss. You just have to ride out the waves.
Phil was my first big love, and I’ll always love him, but I want to start exploring what’s next for me on the relationship front. The night after he died, I told my younger sister that I’d never be able to be with someone else ever again. It seemed impossible. But a year out from Phil’s death, I can think back on our time together in a bittersweet way. Even though this loss has been immensely painful, I can’t imagine my life without Phil in it. And I want my new life to be filled with the love and joy I felt before.
So what does dating look like for a 30-year-old widow? For the past few months, I’ve been in a cycle of deleting and re-downloading dating apps. I don’t entirely know what I’m looking for or how this process will go. I know it’ll be hard and different than before. I’m scared of what rejection might look like when I bring up Phil on dates, but I know that he’s such a part of my story that I have to.
Pre-Phil, I found myself with no clear direction when it came to dating. I knew I wanted to meet someone great but that if a date wasn’t particularly exciting, at least it would make for a good story. Now, however, I feel more clear in what I do and don’t want. Part of me feels like throwing caution to the wind, while another part of me feels like taking things extremely slow. I know that this in-between feeling is valid because this is completely new territory. I deserve happiness even if dating now feels scarier than before. And I know somewhere out there, Phil is watching out for me through this great unknown.