When actor and comedian Patton Oswalt suddenly lost his wife, Michelle, in April 2016, he went public with his grief.
“She hasn’t left a void. She’s left a blast crater,” the heartbroken widower wrote in an open letter, where he also talked about the impact his wife’s death has had on their 7-year-old daughter, Alice.
And his public, palpable grief may be why some people have reacted with surprise – and even criticism – when news broke of Patton’s recent engagement last week. The online naysayers say Patton has moved on “too soon.”
But is getting engaged 15 months after a spouse’s death really too soon?
While we don’t know the ins and outs of Oswalt’s particular situation, we do know this: There’s no hard-and-fast “timeline” when it comes to grieving the death of a spouse and to giving yourself another chance at love.
“Grief is never ‘fully done,’” says Geremy Keeton, who serves as the director of our counseling services department here at Focus on the Family. “But yet, some people do take a proactive approach to healthy mourning. And those people can both have grief and experience new things that God might be bringing into their life.”
The key is to not rush through four “essentials” of the journey.
1. Accept the reality of the loss.
This involves overcoming the natural denial response that happens when a loved one is physically dead. As this happens, for Christians, the person mourning the loss is freer to embrace the consolation of knowing that spiritual life goes on and that we do not grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
2. Experience the pain of grief.
There’s a purpose to grief, so take care to avoid unhealthy attempts at numbing the pain, or trying to reject those feelings of sadness. Fully experiencing the pain provides genuine relief.
3. Adjusting to an environment in which your loved one is missing.
Life changes after the death of a spouse. You will have to take on some of the responsibilities he or she held. You might dread coming home to an empty house. Through it all, you can find new routines that can give you some sense of comfort.
4. Investing the emotional energy you have in healthy and life-giving relationships.
Many people feel disloyal or unfaithful if they find enjoyment in social life or form new attachments. However, the goal is not to forget your loved one; it is to reach the point where you can remember and honor without being halted in your own living.
If these four markers are present in the life of someone who has lost a spouse, that person can weigh and discern whether or not to move forward with a new relationship.
“What we want to avoid is for a person to reactively feel compelled to move forward,” says Geremy. “We don’t want the remaining spouse to feel rushed.”
Another factor a widowed person should consider in moving forward is his or her children.
“Parenting remains a profound calling as we navigate grief, and children will always be a factor in starting a new relationship,” says Geremy. “The method and pace of moving forward varies depending on the age and stage of your children. Generally, a parent must move slower and more carefully the younger their children are.”
No matter their ages, it’s important for parents who have experienced loss to talk with their kids and explain that no one will ever replace the parent they lost. Parents can also reassure their children that they will proceed cautiously. We also encourage them to talk through this process with an experienced counselor.
Once a widowed person considers the possibility of dating again, it’s wise for family and friends to avoid harsh judgments. Instead, they should provide loving counsel and support. As Geremy explains: “We need ample measures of patience and grace with one another when we’re dealing with a loss.”
Ultimately, some widows and widowers may not find love again. It may be God’s will to call them into singleness. That’s why Christians who have experienced the loss of their spouse should listen carefully to God’s call and invitation to what the next stage of life might hold. After all, while marriage is a good gift, it is not a requirement to having a full and meaningful life.
If you or someone you know has experienced a difficult loss, I encourage you to visit our website and read our article series, “Coping with Death and Grief.” You can also learn more about the four aspects of growing and becoming well again by reading our Q&A, “Moving Forward after the Death of a Loved One.” Finally, we also have additional helpful resources available at our online store.
And as always, you can schedule a time to speak with one of our licensed counselors. Learn more about our one-time complimentary consultations, as well as our referrals for licensed Christian counselors, by visiting our Counseling Services and Referrals page.
I’d like to hear from you: What advice would you share for someone who is putting their life back together after the loss of a spouse? If you have experienced love after loss, what was helpful to you? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.