Hanging in Tammy Hill’s home are three photographs: one of Tammy and Mark Mulford on their wedding day, one of Jeffrey and Juanita Hill on their wedding day, and one of Jeffrey and Tammy with their combined family of 12 children. Written in vinyl lettering on the wall beside the images are the words “All because four people fell in love.”
Jeffrey and Tammy were both widowed fairly young, Tammy at 37 years old with four children (the youngest only 4 months old) and Jeffrey at 52 with eight children. Five years after Mark’s death and 18 months after Juanita’s, Tammy and Jeff married—a decision they and other young widows and widowers don’t make lightly.
The loss of a spouse introduces widows and widowers into a vastly different world than the one they were in previously, and amidst grieving and adjusting to their new lives, they are faced with the question of whether or not to date again. A question that each person handles differently.
A Variety of Pressures
Pressures to date and remarry start in subtle, early ways for widows and widowers. Even the initial act of purchasing a headstone and a plot of land at the cemetery elicits thoughts about future marriage. Some people tried to convince Erica Means Shemwell, who was 29 when her husband passed away, to buy a single headstone, saying, “You could remarry and spend 60 years with someone. Don’t you want to be buried with that person?” On the other hand, 26-year-old widow Meg Monk-Sproul received some criticism for buying a single headstone.
Meg Monk-Sproul with her late husband, Michael Sproul.
“I have every intention of being buried there someday, but life changes sometimes, and I think if I were remarried I would want that last name also on my headstone. I don’t think that has any effect on how I feel about my husband, but a lot of people thought that made a difference,” she says.
Even just a few weeks after a spouse’s death, some young widows and widowers—especially those without children—have said they were invited to go back to single adult wards or were called to single adult ward callings. But returning to these wards and callings can be difficult for young widows and widowers.
“Single adult wards feel uncomfortable because I'm not exactly single, but I'm also not married, and I'm in a completely different place in life than most young singles,” Monk-Sproul says.
On the other hand, being in a traditional ward as a single individual or parent comes with its own challenges and feelings of displacement that can emphasize the loss.
“In my ward, I am the only single mother. There are older widows, but no solo or single parents with any children at home,” widow Laura Giometta Cleveland says. “Like other single people say, most lessons and talks are geared toward families. You're a family, but . . . your family feels broken, and not because of anything you did.”
The subtle pressures from feeling misplaced can be heightened by opinions from family members, friends, acquaintances, and even the widows and widowers themselves. Fortunately for Shemwell, she was able to find comfort in the words her terminally ill husband Tony shared with her before he passed.
“Tony wasn’t a husband who said ‘No, don’t get remarried,’ but he wasn’t a husband that said ‘Yes, definitely get married,’” she recalls. “He just said ‘Erica . . . You need to do what you feel prompted to do, and there’s no one that can tell you what the right answer is, including myself.’”
Erica Means Shemwell with her late husband, Tony Means, and their six children.
The pressures to date and remarry are there, but ultimately, as Hill says, “We all have our own stories, and I think it’s important to do what feels good for you and not what everyone wants you to do. Let God guide you. Maybe [you] won’t ever want to re-date and remarry, and that’s okay too.”
The Decision to Date
Two years after Mark’s death, Hill still hadn’t gone on a date. As a marriage and family therapist, she was well aware of the struggles that come with blending families, as well as the risks involved with introducing a new man into her children’s lives. Her concerns, coupled with her grief, made it difficult to consider the possibility of dating again.
But one day, while visiting Nauvoo, she was running down Parley Street near the Mississippi River when she thought of the early pioneers who were leaving Nauvoo and how hard it would have been for them to get on boats to cross the Mississippi.
“Across the river is unknown, and it’s pretty frightening,” Hill says, comparing crossing the river to choosing to date again. “Yet I knew in the moment that I needed to face the river and move forward and stop staying back where it was comfortable for me.”
It was that spiritual witness that prompted Hill to date again—one of the hardest decisions she has had to make.
At the beginning of her first date, Hill’s date walked her to her car and helped her inside. When he shut the car door, “I started bawling right there,” she says. “I thought, ‘What am I doing? Am I cheating on Mark?’ It was so weird.”
For 35-year-old widower Ryan Blake Comer, the decision to date came after he stood by his wife’s gravestone praying. “A thought came to me: Shannon’s progression wasn’t stopping just because she passed away, so I needed to find a way to move past her loss and not stay stuck for too long,” he says.
But dating didn’t come easy. Comer compares the process to playing a video game.
“You get to a certain level, and you feel really good about yourself, and then the video game crashes and you have to start all over again,” he explains. “You've done it, so you know it's possible, but you realize how hard it was to get to that point, and so the prospect of trying again is daunting and discouraging.”
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To combat similar feelings of trepidation about dating again, Shemwell decided to take it slow. “I had to make some friends first and get comfortable with the idea of even talking to men first,” she says.
When it comes to deciding to date again, Hill warns from her professional knowledge and personal experience that widows and widowers should avoid feeling rushed or pushed beyond what they feel capable of doing. Instead of dating specifically to remarry, she suggests approaching dating with the idea of “I’m just making a new friend” and as an opportunity to dress up and go somewhere fun.
“Dating should be fun,” she says. “If it’s really something that’s uncomfortable or causing a lot of pain, I think [that person] is not ready to date yet. [They] need to want to do it.”