Starting over is hard.
When life falls apart, inevitably after the grieving, healing, and recovering comes a period of rebuilding. Once you figure out who you are, you have the chance to start again and mold your life into what you want it to be. It is exciting. It is unnerving. If looked at through the right lens, it can be seen as the most incredible opportunity. But, it can also provoke a ton of anxiety, poke at old patterns of self-doubt and insecurity, and feel totally overwhelming.
It has been three years since I lost my husband Patrick to brain cancer. I have come farther in the past year than I ever could have imagined. I followed my intuition and left a job that left me physically and emotionally sick. I faced a leveling of my ego as I let go of the identities that defined me. I learned to listen to the quiet voice that shows up in the stillness of meditation which has never steered me in a direction of harm, and I trust that it never will. I took responsibility for my physical health and started treating my body like it was the only one I will ever have and acquiescing to what it asks for, whether that is rest, nourishing food, or vigorous exercise.
Of course, all of this positivity has inevitably been accompanied by the deep pain that seems to be necessary for me to grow. I have intentionally removed myself from most social situations because I have been emotionally unavailable to build meaningful relationships. My life has revolved mostly around solitude interrupted only by brief interludes of human contact, enough that I don't feel completely disconnected from humanity but not so much that I might evoke feelings that precede attachment. This has worked for me for a long time, but recently I have started to feel the pull to open my well-guarded heart again to not just the spirit of the Universe, but also to other living, breathing human beings. This, my friends, is scary territory.
I met Patrick more than seven years ago, and I had eyes for no one else from that point forward. Before that, I spent several years being single, mostly because I hate the awkwardness that is dating. I don't like playing games. I am uncomfortable dealing with people who aren't up front about how they feel. I don't like not knowing where I stand with someone, or wondering whether I am breaking some unwritten rules of engagement because I decide to call someone that I want to talk to without waiting a certain amount of days. As a general rule, what you see is what you get with me, and I have never had a desire to submit to society's protocol on dating. As a result, I just avoided it entirely, save a few bumbling, inelegant forays into the field that often yielded little but discomfort. It's no surprise that my pattern with relationships tends to be establishing mutual attraction, immediately followed by "Let's move in together!" It is my unhealthy but surefire way of avoiding the ambiguity of dating by rushing straight into a serious relationship.
After Patrick died, for the first couple of years I was perfectly comfortable with the idea of becoming an old cat lady who never again risked the excruciating pain of a broken heart. I felt that our love story was beautiful and significant enough to last a lifetime and there was, therefore, no point in putting myself back in a position to experience such extraordinary loss. I had such a huge amount of work to do on reconciling with the woman that was loved by Patrick and the one who was left behind that the very idea of dating again was untenable. Given my past-described experiences, I was fine with the prospect of perpetual singlehood for my remaining time on this planet.
Over the past year however, as my spiritual practice has grown, I have started to realize that there are certain lessons that cannot be simply absorbed through osmosis, watching other people in their relationships while keeping myself safely at a distance. It is easy to feel spiritually evolved while sitting alone on a mountaintop. It is an entirely different challenge to maintain the sense of peace I have found while actually interacting with other human beings. People are unpredictable. They might feel one way one minute, and change their mind the next. They cause hurt feelings. They poke at the dark places in my subconscious that still seek to keep me perpetually restless, irritable and discontent. Why, for heaven's sake, would I voluntarily expose myself to that kind of uncertainty?
The answer to that question has become glaringly obvious: because without allowing for the possibility of the pain that comes when things inevitably end, whether voluntarily or not, I will also never experience the beauty, growth, and wonder that accompanies the phenomenon of coexisting with a partner. Simply put, my soul has a lot more to learn in this lifetime, and part of that learning will necessarily involve a romantic relationship.
This all has started to become clear to me over the last few months. As it did, I started facing questions that I imagine most widowed people deal with: how do I honor the love and relationship with Patrick while still moving forward? How do I bring up this critical experience which has molded me into who I am today to potential suitors without appearing like I am stuck in the past? How can I reconcile my genuine belief that Patrick was my soul mate with the prospect of allowing someone else to walk beside me in this lifetime? How do I avoid the pitfall of constantly comparing the life I once had to the one I have now?
In the past, these questions were enough for me to crawl under the covers and hide from the world, sheltered from confronting them but also prevented from experiencing the real joy that comes with sharing life with a partner. Today, because I want to live my dharma and participate in the spiritual evolution I agreed to undertake on Earth, I don't have to let my fear of these unanswered questions stop me from moving forward in a meaningful way. I have learned how to hold space in my heart for Patrick and our love, a place that is so sacred no one can touch it and that is not in danger of being replaced. I have let go of my worry about what other people will think about me when they see me holding hands with someone else for the first time. I have accepted in the core of my being that Patrick would want me to experience love again and that doing so does not constitute a betrayal of what we had; in fact, it is quite the opposite. I think that the single greatest way I can honor my love with Patrick is by living and loving.
This does not mean that I am going to jump back into old patterns and start actively seeking out a partner. As Seinfeld would say, "Not that there's anything wrong with that," but it's just not where I am at. It is enough for me to simply wake up in the morning with a clear head and ask for the Universe to help me open my heart a little more each day. The rest will take care of itself if and when the time is right. If it turns out that this intuition is wrong and I actually am destined to be a cat lady, that's okay with me, too. I am content with myself and I know that I am enough all on my own. The most important thing is that I acknowledge every day that I am allowed to be happy, and that I accept whatever form that takes. I'm sure this seems like a simple and obvious premise to many, but it has taken a long time for me to get here, and I am extremely grateful.
About a month before Patrick died, in a moment of clarity, we talked about what was going to happen to me when he was gone. I told him that life wouldn't matter anymore. His response was, "You have to make it matter - if you don't, who will?"
Lisa O'Leary is a lawyer, cat mom, widow, sports enthusiast, truth seeker, soul searcher, meditator, and consciousness practitioner who is actively engaged in quieting down the mind to allow the song to play.