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.”
New Dating Landscape
The landscape of dating and remarrying after the loss of a spouse comes with its own unique set of challenges. Here are a few insights and suggestions from those who have been there.
For a widow and widower, the dating pool is often very different from their early dating experiences.
“The people that I’ve dated since my husband passed away…tend to have more of an emotional maturity. They’re older, [with] more life experience; they’ve lost someone close to them or something like that that has given them more perspective to where they could handle this sort of thing, because it’s really heavy,” Monk-Sproul says. “And it’s hard to be a person who is dating a widow and understand that they are still going to cry about their spouse sometimes and it doesn’t have any effect on their feelings for you or anything else.”
It can be difficult to find individuals who are willing to bear the heaviness of a widow and widower’s experience, which is often why widowers and widows turn to those who have also lost a spouse or significant other. For example, Troy Salisbury is a widower who coped with his grief through writing poetry, and looking back, the first poem he wrote about finding another spouse reflected his desire to find someone with a similar heartache:
Our spouses are a part of us, sealed for eternity.
Let's help each other rejoin them, the best that we can be.
Let's help each other honor them, remember them each day.
For their success and happiness, together we can pray.
I know that he'll be trusting me, and she'll be trusting you,
To have utmost respect and love, to see each other through.
Though many widows and widowers look to date others who have lost spouses, Comer isn’t as concerned about the situations of the people he dates.
“I think that with any of those groups there are going to be unique challenges, so I just want to keep as open a mind as possible. I have specific standards and qualities that I'm looking for, and if I find them in a person I like, I'm not really concerned with whether she's single, divorced, or widowed,” he says.
Questions and procedures around temple sealings also shape the dating experience for those who have lost their spouse. One of the trickier aspects for widows looking to remarry is that those sealed to their first husband can’t be sealed again to a second spouse. Widows address this aspect of dating and remarrying in a variety of ways.
Some, like Keri Salisbury, avoid the issue by choosing to date only sealed widowers. Hill, on the other hand, didn’t limit herself to dating only widowers, even though she still planned on keeping her first sealing. Hill, like many other widows, holds onto the faith that a loving God will work everything out.
“I don’t think we need to get hung up on what sealings mean here. I just think it’s going to be all worked out, and it’s going to be a lot better than we can possibly imagine,” she says.
It’s important to know that not every widow shares the same opinion or approach as Keri and Hill, and one solution does not fit all. It can cause unnecessary pain and hardship for widows who are bombarded with pressure and opinions from all sides about this subject.
“I've talked to widowed friends who got a lot of pressure to break or not break their sealing when they remarried,” Monk-Sproul said. “That decision is such an intensely personal one that I don't think anyone has any right to comment on it . . . because I can guarantee the widow they know has already agonized over that.”
The best thing friends and family members can do is to allow widows the space to figure out their own path and support them in their decisions. Keri Salisbury and the widower she married, Troy, both agree, “Members should not pretend to know what is best for widows and widowers and tell them how they should live their lives now that their spouses have passed on. Just love them and pray for them and trust that they will make decisions that are right for them.”
Grappling with Guilt and Grief
Sometimes widows and widowers feel a sense that they are betraying their first spouse by dating again. Although Hill knows that some people will choose not to date or remarry—and that’s okay—she also wants people to know that choosing to date again doesn’t mean that the first marriage was any less meaningful or that the first spouse is any less loved. She, like many other widows and widowers, compares it to a mother’s love for her children. First-time moms who love their child so dearly may struggle to believe that they could love a second child as much as their first, but then the second baby comes along and they find that their heart expands.
“You can have a lot of love in your heart for a lot of different people,” Hill says. “Love is exponential. It grows with the more people you invite into your heart.”
Monk-Sproul wants people to know that deciding to date again is a decision that should be celebrated and not seen as an act of disloyalty.
“I think the choice to date again is a very brave one for widows [and widowers] because it shows that you’re willing to go potentially through the whole situation of losing your spouse all over again for the sake of love, which I think is a very brave thing to do,” she says. She adds, “The human heart is capable of so much love, and one doesn't replace the other.”
But Shemwell also warns that people shouldn’t think that marriage will “fix” the widow or widower—the grief still remains and the struggle continues, even after remarriage. “Those feelings [of missing my husband] are still intact. Even though I’m remarried, I still miss my first husband every day.”
Shemwell also wants widows and others to know that it’s okay to still feel grief and to be open about it, even when dating. Shemwell believes, “The more you are open about it and talk about it, the better your healing is, and the more complete and whole you can feel again.” And, for Shemwell, the more whole and healed she felt, the more she was able to open her heart to loving someone else.
“You can love someone completely that’s not here but you can still with your whole heart love a completely different person as well,” she says.
Hill often tells her students at BYU that the process of remarrying and blending a new family was harder than the trial of losing her husband.
“If I hadn’t known spiritually that this is what God wanted me to do, I would never have done it. In my counseling with people considering remarriage, I tell them directly [that] if you have not received a profound spiritual witness that this is what God needs you to do, I would encourage you not to do it. It’s too hard,” she says.
That being said, she’s found tremendous joy in her remarriage. As a marriage and family therapist, she has a few bits of practical advice for clients looking to remarry that aid the transition into their new life. This includes getting a prenuptial agreement that secures assets to each spouse’s respective children. She also recommends couples move into a new home together and refrain from living in the home that previous spouses lived in.
“Honestly, in counseling that’s one of the first things I tell them,” she says. “You need to bring your resources together and establish a new home with a new family system, and it works better if it’s all on mutual property that you both invested in together equally.”
But along with this advice, Hill stresses that families shouldn’t try to cut out or put from their minds past spouses and parents. Hill and her husband Jeff have photographs of their previous spouses in the home. They choose to celebrate previous spouses’ wedding anniversaries and birthdays to honor both Mark’s and Juanita’s contribution to the Hill-Mulford family or “Hilfords” as they often call the new, blended family.
“This person is always going to be part of your family. They’re not going to be there, you’re not going to see them, or do all the things that you do with the people who are alive, but they still have a place at the table,” Hill says.
Erica Means Shemwell poses with her new husband, Spencer Shemwell, and their combined 11 children.
Shemwell remarried in January 2019 to widower Spencer Shemwell. The marriage combined Erica’s seven children and Spencer’s four children—who are all under the age of 11—under one roof.
“It’s been a really neat experience because I feel like I’ve been able to have an open mind that things are going to be different and that’s okay, that’s good,” she says. “We’re finding our new normal all over again.”
The decision to date and marry again after the death of a spouse is a personal one, and it IS different for everyone. As Troy Salisbury says, “This is a very different and unique journey for each of us.” The best thing ward members, friends, and family can do for widows and widowers is support them in their decisions, whether that be to date and remarry or to continue life as they are. Individuals can also recognize that widows and widowers aren’t moving on from their lost loved ones, but moving forward with their lives.
Troy and Keri Salisbury share, “We never move on from the loss of our spouses. We merely move forward. Some people, especially family members, will sometimes judge widows and widowers and assume they no longer love their deceased spouses or are somehow being unfaithful to them. Widows and widowers are merely trying to make the most of their mortal lives and be happy again.”