The notes from my widowed readers came in pieces over the past few months, but together, they read something like this:
I am so happy that you have found your second love, Chris. You seem really happy! I also recently found someone new, and for the first time in a long time, I feel alive again. But here’s my question: does this feeling (of being alive and in love) make you also feel guilty?
I have a simple answer for that: no.
(But also, I do still feel guilt sometimes.)
I guess this needs some explanation. In fact, I’ve been thinking about guilt a lot lately. So much of 2018 and 2019 was filled with guilt – over my parenting, over my failings as “head of household”, over what I hadn’t done in the past and over what I wanted for the future.
I also felt a lot of guilt over what I hadn’t done for Shawn when he was sick. Before he was diagnosed, I thought he just had a stomach bug. Once I knew it was cancer, I thought we had so much more time. I kept trying to continue on with my normal life, and that meant I missed many hours with him. This haunted me, as I wrote about in the original post, “Guilt” from November 2019:
Why didn’t I go with him to the hospital that first time? Why didn’t I call a neighbor and show up, so he’d know I’d always be there for him? Why did I stay home with the kids and let him get sent home without any painkillers? He didn’t need that extra week of terrible pain he endured before his diagnosis. I would never let one of my kids be in the hospital by themselves. Shawn never let me be in the hospital by myself, even if it meant leaving our kids so he could be there. But I didn’t go to the ER with him the first three times he went. I took care of the kids. I went to work. I didn’t grill the doctors and I wasn’t there when he got the first scan, the one that suggested he had cancer. I wasn’t there, and he was alone.
This kind of guilt – the guilt about what I didn’t do – hasn’t ever fully gone away. Lots of therapy and lots of support from friends and family has helped me accept that I was doing the best I could at the time. But the guilt about what I could have done will always remain, at least a little bit.
So, yes, I know guilt. Guilt for what I didn’t do in the past, and guilt for what I was doing in my life as a parent and a friend and a human in this world after Shawn died. But none of that compared to the guilt I felt when I was single and thought about or interacted with men. Men who were not Shawn.
The first time I let myself feel something for a man was about six months after Shawn died. (I wrote about it for a publication I liked. You can read it here.) For weeks afterwards, when I thought about our interaction, waves of guilt came over me. It felt like cheating, even though I knew it wasn’t.
This pattern – of feeling attracted to men, and then feeling guilty about it – it continued, unfortunately. It got easier to deal with the guilt, and sometimes I could let down my guard a little bit and actually enjoy myself. But it took me almost a year and a half before the guilt really abated to a point where I could date with some ease. Here’s what I wrote about that (again, from the post, “Guilt”):
Why am I able to look at men again? Even if it takes me a long time to hold someone’s gaze, why is it even possible for me to think about what it would be like to have someone else’s lips on mine? My God, I never thought like this when Shawn was alive, even if I found someone attractive. Why am I able to do it now? Does it mean that my love for Shawn is fading?
So even then, the guilt was there. But it was manageable.
And then I met Chris. (Okay, I didn’t technically meet him last spring, but I did re-meet him.) My attraction to him was powerful, even in those very early days. I had a hard time thinking about anyone or anything else – and this was in the beginning of the pandemic, when I was homeschooling and virtual teaching and single parenting without any extra help, so that’s saying something. I remember hanging up after a long phone conversation with Chris one night, staring up at the ceiling and hearing the sound of his voice in my head. I remember smiling and laughing just a bit. I remember thinking, “I’m so happy.”
And I also remember thinking this: I don’t feel guilty. Not at all.
It was a strange feeling, actually. Wasn’t I supposed to feel guilty, at least a little bit? All the other widow blogs I read discussed guilt like this: “It’s a normal thing to feel when you fall in love again,” or “of course you feel guilty about finding someone new!”
But I didn’t.
I don’t know what this means, except that maybe I’m outside the norm for widows? Or maybe that there are other widows like me who don’t feel guilty about falling madly in love anymore, but think that they should?
Let me be clear, I still feel guilty about things that happened in the past, especially when Shawn was dying. And I still sometimes watch the kids do something impossibly cute or something happens in our lives that’s incredibly momentous, and I feel sad that Shawn isn’t here to see it. Claire’s 5th grade graduation was one of those times, and other markers like that – ones that make me really happy about where my life is now – often give me a strange mix of emotions, including twinges of guilt.
So when I say “yes, I feel guilt,” that’s the truth. I feel what I might term “reflective guilt.” But when I look at Chris, when I feel his arms around me, when I think about our future, I do not feel guilt. “Future guilt” – or whatever I should call it – is not a part of my second love story.
I think this is hard for other people to understand – widows and non-widows alike. But I think it’s also important for me to tell my story, just in case there’s someone out there who is feeling like I have in the past: like I wasn’t honoring Shawn if I didn’t feel at least a little bit of guilt about moving on with a new man.
I loved Shawn, and I still grieve his loss. All the well-wishers who’ve noted that “it must be complicated” to fall in love again are right.
But while the situation might be complicated, my emotions for Chris are not. I don’t know if that’s normal at all. I am not a therapist or even someone who knows enough widows to say what’s actually “normal.” I just know it’s what I feel.
It’s just not that complicated for me to love Chris.
Image Credit: Becky Hale Photography.