Finding Love After Losing My Mom

the author as a baby with her mother
Finding Love After Losing My MomCourtesy of Sara K. Runnels

My mom, eternally optimistic about my love life, despite ever-increasing evidence to the contrary, would routinely check in after a first date.

“Nothing to write home about!” I’d usually say, on the defense, already scrubbing whatever-his-name from memory. She’d sigh lovingly, wondering why her catch of a daughter wasn’t having more luck finding the kind of love that merited sappy prose, but instead, my signature viral one-liners mocking the state of modern dating.

The reason, of course, was simple and complicated all at once.

For most of my twenties and thirties in New York, I dated fast and furiously. While other singles approached the dating pool tepidly, I took off my clothes and cannonballed in, creating a small tsunami of share-worthy tales—farcical, fascinating, and frustrating all at once, among many other F-words.

I was on dating apps for so long, I’d joke my profile didn’t feature a “New Here!” badge but instead: “Founding Father.” The apps made it easy to ditch vulnerability and sincerity in the name of entertainment—impressing right-swipes with my wit, charm, and alcohol tolerance, while collecting stories and anecdotes like bargain antiques. It’s probably why, well into my late-thirties, I was still receiving invitations for milestone celebrations addressed to: “Sara and Whatever Guy You’re Dating From Tinder at the Moment.”

Instead of letting anyone in, I kept them at a subconscious distance by turning dates into martini-fueled one-woman shows, hoping, in a best-case scenario, they’d want tickets for the second act. I truly thought I was gunning for real, life-changing love, but more often than not, I was simply putting on a front, determined to break my own heart before anyone else had the chance.

I told my mom everything—but I couldn’t tell her that.

the author and her mom sitting at a booth together
The author and her mother, Patty.Courtesy of Sara K. Runnels

Patty was a queen bee with a voice like honey, a single mom who was fiercely independent, effortlessly classy, artfully funny, and generous without expecting anything in return. Her presence was one of the safest and most enchanting places you could ever visit on earth. She was my first call, my travel partner, and my existential compass. I never had to enter or exit her borders, because I was her world, and she was mine.

And more than anything, she wanted me to find a lifetime love.

In 2018, just as I began to realize I might never feel satiated by New York City’s bottomless bachelor buffet, I accepted a job offer in Seattle. I trusted the 2,854-mile change of scenery would help reset my dating mentality, giving me the space to untangle the years I tricked myself into believing I didn’t need or value genuine partnership.

Patty wished for that, too.

The Pacific Northwest dating pool was crowded with jaded thirty-somethings, but as long as no one invited me on a first-date hike, I intended to make waves.

In the process, my writing took on a new form, and my relatable commentary and comedic twist on the pros and woes of modern dating made a splash around the internet. My single-girl hot takes, mostly via viral tweets, memes, and humor pieces in The New Yorker, amassed a sizable Instagram following, especially through a love-starved pandemic.

As a result of this unexpected rise, I was hired by three top dating apps for copywriting and consulting. I doled out lighthearted advice to the masses and shared war stories on a handful of podcasts. My DMs were almost always full of women telling me I had made them laugh or feel seen through the bleakness of online dating.

Jokes aside, my message to singles was clear: Focus on what you do have (people who love you, a stalwart sense of humor, the thrill of possibility, a million reasons not to settle), instead of what you don’t.

With more than 75,000 people invested in my spinster chronicles, I couldn’t start a relationship now.

the author taking a selfie when her mom
Courtesy of Sara K. Runnels

My mom always noted that for someone who had “nothing to write home about,” I sure had a lot to say. She was supportive of this particular dating chapter, because she loved the poignant and playful storytelling it inspired, even if it crushed her a little. She understood that content was a byproduct of my restless dating life, but I promised her being content in a relationship was guiding my pursuits.

Then in March 2020, as the entire world turned upside down with chaos and confusion, our little world got a double dose of devastation. Over FaceTime, my mom delivered the devastating news that she had late-stage lung cancer.

I spent most of 2021 and 2022 working remotely to take care of her and be by her side through the ups and downs in Cary, North Carolina. Even during these back-and-forth stints between the East and West Coast, there was a part of me that believed I needed to date even faster and more furiously. I just wanted to hold up a man I was proud of and show it to my mom, like an outdoorsy guy showcasing a fish on his dating profile.

Despite her odds-defying strength and her tenacity to persevere for her one and only baby girl, we said goodbye two and a half years after the diagnosis. While I knew this nightmare day would come, nothing—nothing—prepared me for the first moments, hours, weeks of having to exist without hearing her perfect laugh or “I love you, sweetie.”

My wonderful father and amazing friends and family were a wealth of warmth in the first waves of grief, but I feared the loneliness and alienation that would come after being evicted from my sanctuary, the one place on earth I could truly exhale.

In a collection of prompted stories about her life, my mother wrote to me: My love for you is unconditional. It will be there no matter what. You are my heart, and there are no conditions under which I couldn’t love you. My greatest hope is that you will find that kind of love in a partner to share your life with.

the author as a baby with her mother
The author as a baby with her mother.Courtesy of Sara K. Runnels

Against all odds, 19 days after she physically left my world, Adam entered it.

After an intimate ceremony for my mom in North Carolina, I declared to my best friend, Emma, and my Aunt Daria that—for real, this time—I was shifting the way I dated. The fun, fiery adventures were not entirely off the table, but feeling safe and secure with someone was now my top priority. (In true only-child fashion, I believed I could have it all.)

On the flight back to Seattle, hoping to distract myself from the Patty-shaped hole in my soul, I engaged in one of my favorite pastimes—looking for love in all the wrong places.

Hinge notified me that my “Most Compatible” section had been updated, so I peeked with morbid curiosity. Historically, this feature would match you with a deflated tire and tell you it was the love of your life, but I indulged the faulty algorithm out of habit and hope.

Adam, a liberal urban planner and musician with kind, bright blue eyes and thoughtful profile answers, wrote to me: “An attractive writer into bearded men? You’ve got my attention.” To which I replied: “Good. Attention is exactly what I’m looking for.”

On our first date, I talked about my mom in present tense. I couldn’t bear to tell a stranger I’d recently been gutted to the core, and I was just doing my best to not be a salty puddle by charming handsome single men over dirty martinis.

On our second date, I found the strength to tell him the truth, and he listened attentively and responded empathetically, and I felt a sense of relief that my current state of emotional affairs might not be an epic turnoff. (Vulnerability is hot!)

Later that night, in a Christmas-themed bar in downtown Seattle, we drank cocktails out of mugs shaped like Santa’s lower-half, and he bought an online subscription to The New Yorker, so he could read all my humor articles behind the paywall.

That was something to write home about… and yet.

On our fifth date, in a small theater in Capitol Hill, we watched a collection of Sundance-winning short films. One of them centered around a comedian discovering why her mom never arrived to see her perform that night. The heartache I felt was breathtaking, but I tried not to let it radiate. He squeezed my hand so lovingly while the short story unfolded, and I surprised myself by thinking: Please, never let it go.

On a weekend trip to Montana, a month into dating, I wept wildly in the middle of the night, because his snoring reminded me so much of her snoring. He held me tenderly, and I eventually fell asleep, comforted by how funny my mom would’ve found the apnea association.

The first time I met his mother, after several hours of playing Delightful New Girlfriend, I cried in his family’s bathroom. We left right after, and he asked me to talk about all of my mom’s favorite things the entire ride home.

Three months into our relationship, Adam flew to Cary to help me and my dad organize and clean out mom’s house. My dad later remarked that, upon hearing Adam and I laugh hysterically together during a stint of confusing grief, he was relieved, comforted by our dynamic.

Not long before our one-year anniversary, we bought our own house together in Seattle.

When I first delivered the state of my union to the masses, thousands of hard-earned followers instantly retreated, seeing my fortuitous rebrand as a betrayal to our bachelorette bond. But that deficit was eclipsed by a beautiful outpouring from fellow long-time daters who confided in me that this news was, objectively, a renewal of hope for sanguine singles.

The more Adam and I fell in love, the more cruel it felt that my worlds would never intersect—that my mom would never get to embrace the gem who managed to derail my notorious track record.

the author and her new partner adam
The author with her fiancé, Adam.Courtesy of Sara K. Runnels

I just wanted to hug Patty and tell her I finally understood why she wished so diligently for me to have this kind of unstoppable love, this back-up safe space in place. But whispering my secrets to the wind always made me sob.

As everyone in my life learned more about Adam and what a sweet, empathetic, and compatible partner he was, they’d all say exactly what I assume you’re thinking right now: “Oh, my goodness—I bet Patty sent him!” And I’d say, “Maybe!” knowing my mom might find that kind of ethereal handiwork amusing.

It doesn’t matter if the timing of his arrival was the result of mournful manifestations, spiritual sorcery, or a dating app’s fortuitous formula. It matters that he picked up where she left off: someone to share my Wordle score with every morning; someone to laugh breathlessly with; someone to bring me flowers or brush my hair on a Big Grief Day; someone to be my travel partner and the most enthusiastic cheerleader for my creative pursuits; someone whose hugs feel like: It’s you and me against the world.

It matters that the enormous hole in my heart from this loss made space for something new. It matters that, all this time, I wasn’t dating for the story, but for the love story. It matters that after saying “no” to so many relationships, I said “yes” to Adam when he asked me to marry him. And it matters, more than anything, that there’s not only someone to write home about—but someone who feels like home.

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