Young, Widowed and Dating Again: 5 Lessons Learned During Reentry

I'm navigating the challenges of dating as a young, widowed mother.
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Taya Dunn Johnson
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I'm navigating the challenges of dating as a young, widowed mother.
Taya Dunn Johnson

Did you know that the re-entry of a spacecraft into Earth’s atmosphere is actually more dangerous than the launch itself? The spacecraft must remain intact and cool during this encounter so that it can return to the ground in one piece. A team of brilliant scientists must properly chart the perfect course in order to achieve a successful reentry and avert disaster.

I’d never considered my journeys similar to those of a spacecraft, but now I know that they are. I didn’t plan my re-entry; it just kinda happened. The moment arrived and landed upon me without any warning. It’s not something that I had been focused on or worried about. 

I was a widow. Short statement, big meaning. I had been breathing, taking each day minute by minute and trying to adjust to a new normal of widowed motherhood.

Just as I settled into this new normal, a terminal disease came through like a hurricane and took my father away before the enormity of the diagnosis had set in. Barely two years apart, my guys were gone, my heart and soul deeply damaged. A new, fresh wave of grief, old embers that were still smoldering after my husband’s death, reignited with lighter fluid. 

Suddenly, I found myself engaging online with cyberbullies as I came to the defense of another young widow who wanted to celebrate finding new love. I told those e-gangsters that I too wanted to experience love again and I meant it. No one warned me that reentry would be so hazardous to my health.

In order to reach love, everything begins with dating. I didn’t make a grand announcement to my family or friends, didn’t post anything on social media or on my blog—I just began. A nice, younger gentleman asked me out for coffee. I stuck my pinky toe in the baby end of the pool without hesitation. My first attempt at reentry was a smooth success, but it was a mirage that camouflaged how rough the process could actually be.

We are all intrigued by the space program because of its breadth and dangerous mystique. A spacecraft filled with vulnerable yet brave humans exits the earth’s atmosphere, sent to accomplish a challenging mission in space for the greater good of mankind before experiencing the scariest and most dangerous part – the reentry. If successful, they live to tell their stories. If disastrous, we are told their stories by others. I’ve chosen to tell my own story.

My high school sweetheart and I married in 2004 and had a son. Life was comfortable and we were happy. The bottom dropped out when he died in 2012 at the age of 36. At 35, I was left alone with a 3-year-old son on the autism spectrum. 

There have been dark days since that moment, but there is also light and hope. I cannot pinpoint the precise moment that ideas of dating, falling in love, and remarrying came into my consciousness, but at some point they did. Maybe it was a year after his death, maybe two, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. I know firsthand that the length of time one grieves has no direct proportional correlation to the depth of love, amount of pain, or time that has passed.

Unlike the folks at NASA, I did not assemble a team of experts to analyze the mission, plot my course, run the numbers, draw the diagrams, provide me with detailed step by step instructions, place me in a simulated test scenario, or plan my reentry. I just dove in. Sink or swim, right? 

I’m relieved that I was able to do a clumsy, modified version of the doggy paddle; even as strong outside forces tried to sink and destroy me. Along the way, I’ve learned a few things about myself and the people I encountered.

Dating hasn't really changed. Our busy lives and the constant integration of smart devices and social media add a layer of distraction, however, honest and true intentions will make their way to the surface. I haven’t “dated” since the early 90’s and, while it’s common to hear people say, "Wow, dating sure has changed!", I don’t completely buy into that statement. I believe that the core of dating and relationships is still exactly the same as it was in 1975, 1995, and now in 2015. Quite simply, people make time for the people and things that are important to them. 

I am a confident, strong, intelligent woman and a damn good partner. My perspective on love, life, and loss is deeply impacted by my husband’s early departure from this world. I’ve had “the fairy tale”—I know it exists and I’m not willing to settle for less. I make no untrue assertions that my relationship with my husband was perfect. It absolutely was NOT. However, what I can say with 100% certainty is that we were friends who liked, loved, cared, trusted, and respected one another. Many are willing to lower their standards and settle for things they do not want in order to be married and/or have a child. I’ve been married and I have a child. I am seeking a love partner who honors the woman I am today and can be a wonderful male role model and father figure to my son. Anything less is unacceptable.

Online dating isn’t for losers, but it sure is chock full of liars, cheaters, and weirdos. I stuck with that method for a couple of months with the basic idea that if I’m sane and a pretty great catch, there must be others. Perhaps there are, but none have crossed my path. Maybe my failure to include pictures of bare breasts contributed to my lack of success, but there’s really no way to tell. The English language is very important to me and a potential date’s inability to express themselves while in the “putting your best foot forward” stage was startling enough for me to hit the “delete” button.

I am mature enough to trust that my gut and intuition will not lead me down a bad path. A potential partner gives you clues about the person they are. With each coffee shop conversation, email message, and first date, I bring my full character, integrity, personality, faith and common sense. Pay attention, take note and trust your gut. I don’t need to know WHY my gut is sending up glowing neon warning signs, I just need to listen. The detailed truth may or may not ever be revealed to me, but I’d rather be on the safe side of uncertainty than the dangerous side of positive proof.

Dating is fun if you allow it to be. The getting-to-know-you period is fun and talking to new people should be interesting. A first date that involves nervous energy, adult conversation, and a new restaurant is equally entertaining. I’ve had first dates who never call me again (their loss) and those who I never call again (my gain). It doesn’t take long to see if we’re a match for future conversations, adventures, or possibly a relationship. And—news flash—a first date is just that. I refuse to shove a square peg in a round hole and call it a perfect triangle. Unnecessary because there are actual triangles out there! Find one!

Along the way, I’ve run across several frogs. Married frogs, con artist frogs, deadbeat frogs, boring frogs, dangerous frogs and a few other varieties of unsavory frogs. Each one tried to alter my reentry course, damage my flight plan, and send me spiraling into a scary, dangerous emotional orbit. Yet I stood tall and resisted. 

I feared that my tender heart could not survive reentry but I didn’t give myself enough credit. I didn’t have mission support from NASA, but I probably should have. By using my own scientific methods, I survived my first few attempts and I’ve landed in a place where I am open to whatever goodness the universe will bring me.