Ottawa·Point of View

Living without Peter

Nicky Jaine's partner of 10 years, Peter Prensler, died more than three years ago. She writes about his life, his death and the 'brutal mix' of grief and guilt she's feeling as she begins dating again.

Nicky Jaine writes about grief, guilt and her Valentine's Day plans after the loss of her longtime partner

Nicky Jaine was with her partner, Peter Prensler, for 10 years until his death in 2016. Starting to date again has come with both guilt and surprises, she writes. (Kate Tenenhouse/CBC)

I've learned a lot about grief in the past three and a half years. Among the many bruising lessons is that grief never ends, and it comes with a lot of guilt. This becomes a brutal mix when you're a widow who's dating.

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I joke that Peter and I met "the old-fashioned way" — in a bar. Peter was adamant that he didn't want to date, didn't want a girlfriend and wasn't going to be moving in with anyone, but five years later we were living together in an amazing community filled with great friends in downtown Toronto. Life was good.

It's hard to say when Peter started feeling unwell. He was tired a lot. His body started to feel out of whack. Minor things became uncomfortable for him.

Then we started getting indicators that it might be serious. Smiley lab techs suddenly became solemn, and appointments were booked quickly. 

Jaine says she and Prensler met the old-fashioned way — in a bar. The two moved in together five years later. (Submitted by Nicky Jaine)

Peter's diagnosis

Peter was diagnosed with kidney cancer at the end of June 2016. A long three weeks later and 20 pounds lighter, the doctors removed 15 pounds of tumour from him. It looked clean, though. We were optimistic.

Peter was thrilled to eat actual food and, even better, to come home. But just days after he was released, the pain began again. His doctor called to tell us to get back to the hospital immediately.

He never left.

In their 10 years together, Jaine and Prensler travelled regularly. Prensler died two years after this photo was taken. (Chris Parry)

Seven specialists later, on a Friday morning, they told us to "organize your affairs." (Really. They actually say that. I had no idea.)

I will never forget the look on Peter's face. Aghast. Jaw hanging. I fought a hysterical urge to giggle.

His first private words to me were bittersweet:

"In one year — no, two years — in two years, I want you to be moving in with someone else."

"Peter. I'm not talking about this."

"But you need to be with someone else."

"Fine. But I'm not talking about it now. We'll talk about it later."

We never did talk about it. I'm glad. But I've been grateful for those words so many times. 

Prensler struggled with nausea in the days before his death. This photo was taken in August 2016, after his feeding tube was removed. (Nicky Jaine)

Early Monday I woke to Peter, cold and uncomfortable, fidgeting with his sheets. He was twisted up in the various tubes and wires. He dropped to the ground, sitting on his heels. An awful sound came out of his mouth. 

I scanned his face and body frantically. His chest moved up, and then down. And — it didn't come up again.

I struggled to lift him, but I couldn't do it. The nurse came to help. We still couldn't. The noise continued. I scanned his face and body frantically. His chest moved up, and then down. And — it didn't come up again. 

I spent several hours in bed with Peter after that, hugging him, cuddling with him, nearly pretending things were back to normal because he wasn't in pain. I can't express how grateful I am for those hours.

Jaine is dealing with the feelings of guilt that come with dating again. (Kate Tenenhouse/CBC)

After Peter

The weeks after Peter's death are a blur of confusion and disconnection punctuated with both pain and kindness that I hadn't experienced before.
Jaine recently moved to Ottawa for a fresh start after Prensler died. She used this picture of her unpacking on her dating profile. (Rachel Rumbelow Mulholland)

I felt fear of enclosed spaces, open spaces, people, noises. Walking down any set of stairs was especially and weirdly terrifying.

Friends and family helped me in the  most amazing ways. They truly were lifesavers. 

Three and a half years later, I can say it gets so much better. But it's not easy. 

First, the grief doesn't ever go away. Sometimes it's a bolt out of the blue — a recent article on progress in cancer treatment sent me into a tailspin — and sometimes it's an event, like Valentine's Day.

Events are painful because the gap is so evident. If Peter were here, there would be a beautiful flower arrangement delivered to my office and a ridiculously large box of Purdy's fruit crème chocolates waiting at home. Best of all would be a messy picnic of crab legs in front of the TV.

The guilt hasn't gone away, either. And now that I'm dating, that guilt has taken on new aspects.

Of course I feel like I'm cheating on Peter. I also feel like I'm cheating on the person that I'm dating.

Of course I feel like I'm cheating on Peter. I also feel like I'm cheating on the person that I'm dating. I worry friends will think that I'm no longer in love with Peter or that I'm "over it" (not a thing, by the way).  

Surprisingly, and new for me, I've been open to non-monogamous relationships. The logic is simple: I don't feel like I'm cheating on either Peter or the person I'm seeing. It doesn't have to result in living together or marriage, which I don't know if I'm ready for. But it also doesn't have to end if it's not "going anywhere."

Jaine's friend Rachel Rumbelow Mulholland took this photo, also featured on Jaine's dating profile. Mulholland also lost her partner recently. (Rachel Rumbelow Mulholland)

I happily admit that I do not know how this plays out for me. There are differences from when I last dated. My bar for a "good" date is higher because I'd rather be home alone than out and not really enjoying it. I do not take it personally when a date doesn't go well, or if someone I've been on several dates with doesn't want to go out again. Dating has been just as much an exercise in finding myself as it has in finding someone else.

I recently moved to Ottawa to help me think purposefully about what I want to do and who I want to be. 

I have started a young widow(er)s' meet-up group to help both other people and myself. I bought a bike. I started playing badminton (poorly, but I hold out hope). When it's tough, I remind myself of what Peter would want for me, and I do it.

This Valentine's Day? I'm not sure yet. I usually try to keep busy and out of the house. Maybe it will be my first one at home since Peter's death. Maybe I'll even be out on a date.

Nicky Jaine says she appreciated all the love she received from family and friends after her partner Peter died. But what she really wanted was a way to talk with other widows and widowers. So she decided to start a monthly meet-up. Hear about her Young Widow and Widowers group. 7:48

Nicky Jaine works in the tech industry in Ottawa. Her partner of 10 years, Peter Prensler, died Aug. 15, 2016. She has since started a group for young widows.