Faith and Family: Overcoming sense of guilt to commit to new relationship is hard but essential

Faith and Family: Overcoming sense of guilt to commit to new relationship is hard but essential

Richard Smith and his wife, Gloria, started first grade together in their small Georgia hometown, so her death from cancer in 2009 ended not only their 37-year marriage but a lifelong friendship. When he took the first steps toward dating again, he felt guilty — as if he were somehow betraying his wife and her memory.

“That was the hardest part. I felt like I was stepping out where I shouldn’t and those feelings were hard to overcome,” he said.

One person who helped him overcome those feelings was Pat, whom he met in 2012. She had lost her spouse, Vernon, in 1990, and though she had occasionally gone out on dates she was content living on her own except for the loneliness that set in every afternoon.

“During the day I didn’t think too much about it. But evenings werealways family time — time to eat dinner, talk about the day. After Vernon died there was never a day when that wasn’t hard until I met Richard,” she said.

Richard and Pat married in 2013. Both said the time they took after the deaths of their spouses allowed them to heal from their grief and prepare to be happy with someone else, which grief experts agree is one key to a successful remarriage after the death of a spouse.

There’s no right answer for how long one should wait to remarry, though many authorities suggest that a surviving spouse not make any major decision, including marriage, until at least a year has passed.  

‘Survivor guilt’

However, regardless of how much time passes any such relationship is subject to “survivor guilt” and a sense of being unfaithful to the departed spouse, writes Richard Mabry, author of “The Tender Scar: Life After the Death of a Spouse.”  

As a surviving spouse himself, Mabry encourages other widows and widowers to cherish the memories of their deceased spouse regardless of whether or not they choose to date again.

“Whether you remain single for the rest of your life or God prepares you for another union, your first marriage cannot and should not be ignored or buried in your memory,” Mabry writes. “Recognize how it influenced and shaped your life. You may and you should continue to love your first husband or wife. It’s possible to do that and at the same time commit yourself to another marriage.”

Alan Wolfelt, founder and director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado, says surviving spouses can find comfort in talking about their loved ones.

“Healing in grief doesn’t mean forgetting your spouse and the life you shared together,” Wolfelt writes in his article “Helping Yourself Heal When Your Spouse Dies.”

Both Richard and Pat Smith said the freedom to talk about their former spouses has enriched their life together.
Pat said, “It’s not taboo for me to say something about my husband or for him to tell me what she cooked.”  
Richard said, “It has brought comfort to me that Pat doesn’t mind talking about our pasts.”

Unfortunately memories from the first marriage are still “baggage” that each spouse brings into the new marriage, said Sid Nichols, who married his wife, Pam, a widow herself, after his wife of 37 years died in 2010.

“Pam is so different in many respects from Barbara and I am so different from her late husband,” said Nichols, director of missions for Calhoun Baptist Association.

Sometimes the memories are bitter ones, which was the case for Eve S., whose husband died after an extended illness just before their 30th wedding anniversary. Eve had hospital bills to pay and a mountain of mortgage and credit card debt, some of which her husband had hidden from her.

“I had a lot of anger when he died because he had the attitude that I could take care of myself once he was gone,” she said.

She also had seen friends whose second marriages had ended in divorce because they could not let go of their memories of their deceased husbands. She was determined not to fall into that trap and said she kept an “open mind” to her second husband’s interests, which included riding a motorcycle and traveling.

Navigating the mix of emotions, fears and expectations from a first marriage is critical to the success of the second, according to Steve Sweatt, clinical director of Community Grief Support Services in Birmingham.
“One cannot assume the second spouse will be just like the first. It often takes patience to find a balance between the past, present and future,” he said.

Full measure of love

Commitment to the second marriage also is essential, Mabry writes.

“Constantly endeavor to give the person you are marrying your full measure of love and devotion,” he writes. “Admittedly it’s a balancing act to move forward with your new husband or wife while honoring your first one. But it’s possible and, like most good things in life, well worth the effort.”