Elaine Roth had only just sat down when she realized that the restaurant she and her date had chosen for the night was quite familiar to her.
She’d been there before with her late husband, Matt, and in fact, they’d even sat at the same table where Roth, 37, was now seated with a new man.
“I was like, ‘Oh my god, all I can think is, Matt dropped his fork here. The water spilled here. The waitress gave us this look,’” she recalls to PEOPLE.
It’s reminders like that — some more obvious than others — that never quite let Roth forget that since Matt’s February 2018 death, she’s forged ahead on a life path she never expected: that of a young widow.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, just 1.2 percent of the nearly 12 million widows in the country are under the age of 39.
Roth found her picture-perfect life twisted into a statistic just about 20 months after Matt, 40, was first diagnosed with glioblastoma, a rare brain cancer, in June 2016.
“We had a very solid marriage. But the few weeks before he was diagnosed, we were very off, something was off in the way we were talking to each other,” she recalls. “I kinda thought it was a mid-life crisis, or seven-year or 10-year marriage itch or whatever.”
As the couple and their two young children would learn, it wasn’t that, but rather a brain tumor that soon robbed Matt of all the things that made him him, Roth says.
“With brain cancer, there’s this particular element of where you’re losing that person. Like, all of a sudden you’ll say a joke and you know, you have a banter almost with your husband, where you say a line, and then you know he has a line back. And all of a sudden that line’s missing,” she says. “You start seeing these little personality things leaving. And that’s heartbreaking.”
When Matt died just months after the couple’s ninth wedding anniversary, Roth says she was struck by the sudden realization that all the memories they shared together — including their meet-cute at a New York City nightclub in 2005 — now existed only in her mind.
“I remember right when Matt died, I was like, ‘Oh my god, now I’m the only one who remembers this way that we met and this experience that we had together,” she says. “[I remember feeling], ‘Will I ever feel wholly happy, will I be happy?'”
As she recalls, that feeling was “very much” along the lines of, “I’m never going to be happy again. Nothing is ever going to look the same or feel the same again.”
Plus, the now-single mother to Gabrielle, 10, and Henry, 8, was suddenly saddled with a slew of responsibilities she’d previously paid no mind to, like taxes, mortgage rates and health insurance premiums.
Despite the fear that accompanies it, Roth says that learning to tackle these new responsibilities head-on — she recently moved her children into a new home in Montville, New Jersey — has helped her grow as a person, and find the confidence to figure it out on her own, for better or for worse.
“There was almost growth through a little bit of failure, a little bit of success, and kind of feeling more confident in taking the space [to say], ‘Okay, I’m doing this by myself and I feel like I have a grip on it,’” she says. “Or if I make a mistake, I’ll figure it out.”
Part of that growth, too, is learning to push forward when it comes to her love life — something Roth reluctantly began embracing last spring when she entered the world of online dating.
“I’ve been afraid of, ‘What are people gonna think? Are they gonna be happy? Are they gonna understand that I still love Matt, and I’m dating?’” she says. “That there’s this duality of somehow grieving and moving forward at the same time?”
Roth’s first date was a bust: she knew right away she wasn’t ready to be wading back into the dating pool.
Still, that didn’t stop her from trying, because, as she explains, “I don’t want to be ruled by being afraid.”
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It’s something Roth, a Pilates instructor and aspiring author who chronicles her journey on her Instagram, touches on repeatedly: the idea that moving forward doesn’t mean the past is forgotten or somehow less important or meaningful.
“I’d like people to know that being a young widow means often living in duality… more than carrying a touch of sadness in every new happy moment and a touch of happiness in every nostalgia-laced memory, young widowhood means feeling more ready to embrace who you are without excuses while questioning yourself endlessly,” she says.
“It’s knowing you have to seize the moment because tomorrow isn’t promised and being terrified of taking the next step because it could all go tragically wrong. It’s looking forward with hope while wishing you could go back in time. Young widowhood is holding two opposing thoughts at one time and learning to find grace in the space between.”