One of the privileges of ministry is that I get to officiate for weddings. Recently I had the honor and pleasure of officiating for the wedding of a couple, both of whom are in their 70s. Both had previous spouses who had died from cancer. My husband Tom and I are in the same situation, both of us having lost spouses to death. One man who attended the wedding mentioned to me that he and his wife had also married late in life following the deaths of earlier spouses. As the chalice lighting I used for the wedding says, the light of the chalice reminds us that “love is a living thing, dancing like a flame, waiting within each of us for an awakening touch.”
Marriage is always a daring step, a committing of ourselves to the mystery of life itself, a leap into an unknown in which there are, and can be, no guarantees. It calls on us to risk what is for the sake of what can yet be. Late in life marriages are even more so. Those of us who marry, or marry again in the autumn or winter of our lives do so knowing perhaps more clearly than do the young that it won’t always be smooth sailing. We are keenly aware that there will be both unbounded joy, and sorrow that will threaten to shrivel our souls. And we choose to embrace the joy, to forge ahead into that mysterious unknown, to entrust ourselves to each other and to a future life whose ebb and flow we cannot yet discern.
People are now living longer, and so the number of marriages following on being widowed has increased. Divorce is also more common, and those who have been divorced may also remarry later in life. A 21st century bride and groom or gay couple who can now marry for the first time in what may have been a lifelong partnership may well be in their 70s or 80s. We can also include partnerships in which an older couple chooses not to legally marry, often for financial reasons, within this discussion.
Our previous lives do not simply fade away when we remarry. We continue to carry with us our sadness and our grief over what we have lost. The reality of our loss remains, and for most of us, life offers up enough poignant moments to remind us of that, as if we were in any danger of forgetting it. It’s been said that there are at least four people in any second or subsequent marriage or partnership—the two who have remarried/partnered and their two prior mates.
Nor need we take it as fate or destiny that, once widowed or divorced, our future is to remain alone. Our hearts can indeed love again, and that without in the least diminishing the depth of our previous love. To love again in no way disrespects or dishonors our earlier love. It certainly does not mean we have not grieved or grieved “right,” whatever that is. I’m personally inclined to think that remarriage or repartnering following the end of a previous relationship often (though certainly not always) speaks well of the former relationship in that it affirms the desire to form another. A recent article I read puts it this way:
You can honor your past;
You can treasure your past;
You can and should love your past;
You do not have to live in your past;
What is it that allows us to make that daring leap of faith? In part, it’s emotional intelligence. Wikipedia describes emotional intelligence in part as “the capacity of individuals to recognize their own, and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different feelings and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior.” Emotional intelligence comes into play in that it enables us to engage the tasks and questions that we must face as we think about entering into a new relationship and carrying it forward successfully.
- What in fact am I feeling? Am I drawn into this new partnership out of need or out of fullness? Out of fear or out of hope? Am I ready for a new relationship at this time?
- What’s past and what’s present? Can I distinguish the two (not the same as separating them). Can I continue to cherish the legacy of the past and at the same time be open to the possibilities that emerge from this new relationship?
- What “baggage” do I bring with me, and how will I deal with it? And yes, we all have it.
- How will I deal with whatever baggage my intended brings?
- Can I accept that I will not “get over” the grief of the past, nor will my intended, and at the same time, fully embrace the present and the future?
- Emotional intelligence can guide us as we navigate the sometimes-tricky waters of a blended family. We often think of blended families in connection with young children (cue “The Brady Bunch”), but blending families with adult children requires discernment and patience as well.
Tom and I gave each of our wedding guests a bookmark as a remembrance of the day. In designing it, I included a quotation from late United Nations Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjöld: “For all that has been, thanks. For all that shall be, yes.” That pretty well sums it up for me. May you be blessed.