The Widow’s Might
800,000 join our ranks annually. We are a fast growing demographic noticed by new home builders and a lucrative niche for health and beauty products. We are invited to dinners by financial planners and surveyed by designers for home features that will convince us to sign on the dotted line.
In contrast, one pastor described us by saying we moved from the front row of church to the back row of church and then out the door. We moved from singing and serving to solitude and silent sobbing, and then on to find a place we belong.
Scripture says the character of a nation is shown by how it treats us, in fact the character of individuals and the church is shown by how it treats us.
Who are we? We are the invisible among you—the widow.
I am one. I am a part of the fastest growing demographic in the United States as baby boomers age. We loose 75% of our friendship network when we become one. 60% of us experience serious health issues in that first year. One third of us meet the criteria for clinical depression in the first month after our spouse’s death, and half of these remain clinically depressed a year later. Most experience financial decline.
If someone had described this scenario to me five years ago, I would have stated emphatically, “It can’t be so! In the community of believers we support each other. We walk together on the journey.” I look back on my own responses to women who became widows and realize how little I understood, how little I empathized, how seldom I walked beside them. Many, in fact, became invisible whether it was in ministry positions, small group participation, or social events. It appears that about half leave the church they attended with their spouse: some reconnect to a place that matches their needs.
If someone had quoted the friendship statistic, I would have thought, “That won’t be me.” With the network that surrounds Bob and me, I will never experience loss of that magnitude. Yet I did. Connections that are primarily through our husbands, change and departures, while appropriate are still painful to process.
Who are we? We now have the title nobody wants. (I still will not mark ‘X’ in the ‘widow’ box; I mark ‘Mrs.’) Becoming a widow means nothing is the same. With Bob’s exit to heaven absolutely every iota of my existence has changed: my calendar, my check book, what’s in my frig, the wake-up alarm time, the thermostat, the traffic pattern in the bedroom, which restaurants I can enter, and yes, the look in my children’s’ eyes when they step in the door on holidays. My living space is more cluttered, make-up is seldom used, and I am familiar with the smell of car oil as I sit in Lube Right next to the overdone coffee wondering what Bob did when he waited here.
There are other changes so private and personal they cannot be shared. Loneliness and solitude are words that are not descriptive enough of the space that becomes the cocoon of the widow. We discover that our journeys are very different and we fit in no mold. However, we have an incredibly strong connecting bond that links us to each other because of our shared experience.
What do we have in common? We discover we are vulnerable as never before. We are pressured to purchase products we neither need nor can afford. Salespersons use their influence as ‘our friend’ and even fellow believer looking out for us. “Safe” takes on a new meaning. I discovered this as I saw my lone image reflected in the dark glass of a Chicago building window. It was winter, dark, and I was hunched over into the wind with my hood up on my long black coat. In my haste to the Metra train station, I passed only two other people and that was as I hurried over the dark waters of the Chicago River. “I’ve never done this before in my life,” I thought. Widows experience so many firsts that we stop counting.
We are concerned about our finances. Most experience financial decline. Women experience fewer years of employment and less income which often impacts their preparation for being alone or retired. In my decades as a church goer, I have never heard a message on I Timothy 5:8 (a passage which admonishes believers to provide for their family) which included appropriate attention to wills, trusts, and life insurance. The likely event that one person in the marriage will exit to heaven before the other with its financial implications are important to address. While in biblical times, God’s people were told to take care of the widows and orphans among them, it is assumed now that the government through Social Security and other programs will care for the invisible among us—a theory for which the numbers do not work.
Our emotions change more drastically than the reversals on the extreme Sheikra roller coaster ride at Busch Gardens—a ride I entered ignorantly rather than have my grandsons unaccompanied through the long line. I regretted that ride immensely as a 200 foot drop rearranged my insides. Imagine this contrast. Two become one in marriage. At nineteen years of age I embarked on my journey with Bob that lasted 41 years, 2 months, and 21 days. In order to understand the contrast, let me elaborate on our experience of becoming one.
“May I walk with you?” The soft hazel eyes of a gentleman looked down into mine. It was a warm September afternoon on the campus of Indiana University. Singing Hoosiers rehearsal was over and the baritone soloist was asking to walk with me! Sixteen months later this 18 year old freshman who had never been to Chicago or heard of Moody Bible Institute married a man who knew his life calling was to serve God through Moody Broadcasting. Finishing degrees, farm girl becoming city girl, moving six times, having children, adopting children, church choirs, lots of hospitality where ever we lived, and traveling to 40 countries together was part of the journey. I became an educator—a teacher and counselor in public high schools for 26 years—yes, a working mom. As he followed his calling he lead the MBI network to 36 owned and operated stations. He negotiated with the Federal Communications Commission successfully and was able to begin a satellite ministry that at times has served 600 affiliates. We parented our children to adulthood which was unquestionably the greatest challenge in our marriage. We enjoyed the marriages of three and worked and toiled over our home as two chose to have their wedding receptions in our yard. No smile was broader on either Bob’s face or mine than watching our three incredibly handsome African American grandsons grow.
In an incredibly productive season of his life while serving as Vice President of Moody Broadcasting, treasurer of National Religious Broadcasters, and board member of HCJB (Heralding Christ Jesus Birth—an international broadcasting group), Bob fell. The inconvenience and pain of a dislocated shoulder began the journey to doctors through disease, through sorting through our theology, to facing the bleak reality: Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis is untreatable, fatal, and had gripped Bob’s body.
Less than three years after that fall he entered heaven willingly: I gave him up with more than reluctance. Our ‘one’ was now ripped in ‘two.’ My inarguably better half was gone and the gapping wound created by his exit had every nerve ending screaming even though I was supposed to be numb. The ride on the Sheikra was docile compared to this.
While every widow’s story is different, we all share the common understanding of a loss that is final beyond description. There will be no phone call, no plane delayed but still landing, no second chance to right our past regrets. Sitting curled up on the cold ground watching the gardener gently work the grass seed into the fresh dirt on my husbands grave set me apart forever from the life I once had. Other widows understand that.
What else do we share? We gain a fresh perspective on Scripture. II Corinthians 1: 3, 4 is so relevant. No one can comfort us like another widow. In turn we are moved deeply when we see another woman enter this experience and we want to comfort her in her grief. We study the 103 Scripture references to widows with desperation to find whether we are invisible to God as well. With gratitude we discover that we are not only close to God’s heart, but He measures everyone by how they treat us. (James 1:27) This is both a comforting and sobering insight. Widows, orphans, prisoners—the voiceless—God chooses to speak for us.
He instructs that our needs be met (Deut. 24:17) through the church’s tithes if necessary (Deut 14:29; 26;12, Acts 6:1-4) He instructs that in our vulnerability we be given our legal rights, (Isa. 1:17 Luke 18: 1-8) He commends us for our sacrificial giving. (Mark 12:42-43) He tells our story—the widow at Zarephath and her generosity, (I Kings 17: 9) the widow, her pot of oil, her faith and obedience. (II Kings 4:1)
As I studied Scripture on widows these themes emerged:
To the widow
be generous regardless of the quantity of your possessions, no one’s ‘stuff’ is their own anyway
be filled with faith, you can’t help but be when you see how special you are to your Creator and your new husband.
To the church
The significance of your church is not in its numbers but that its priorities match those of God.
The character of your leaders is not measured by their popularity or power but by their attention and care for the powerless and voiceless among them
How can churches respond to the widow today? The problem is complex for several reasons. First, churches today are varied ranging from small struggling bodies with limited resources both in staff and financing to mega churches whose staffs are lean and depend on volunteers to minister to most needs other than teaching. Second, the experiences and needs of widows vary widely and there is no ‘one model fits all’ to be created.
However, Scripture is clear that there should be appointed leaders in the body to oversee the care of widows. (Acts 6: 1-7) The ministry arm might well be done through deacons and deaconesses following the model of I Timothy 3: 8-13. I would personally add (clearly this is my personal addition) that all leadership groups related to widow’s ministry have a leading member who is a widow. Ministry leaders are typically married men who understandably cannot fathom our circumstance. .It has been my experience that lacking this leading widow, churches decisions of how to serve us often miss the mark of meeting the real needs of widows.
An important first step once the leadership team has been established is to determine who are the widows among them and then follow up with a survey to discover their needs. While financial needs and help with upkeep of living space are common, need for connection is typical. Most connections with the church are broken upon becoming a widow. This time period is the widow’s most painful, lonely and vulnerable part of her journey, a time when she needs believing friends near her. In our Widow to Widow ministry we study Scripture together, share our journey, and do fun things together as well.
Apart from the outreach of the church there are many ways individuals can encourage widows on their journey. May I offer some “Please do not” suggestions as well as “Please do?
1. Do not assume we need ‘space’ to grieve. There is already a huge hole in our universe. Please do stay connected.
2. Do not tell us you understand. Please do say you are sorry for our loss. We would rather you tell us you do not know what to say than tell us your story of loosing your friend or even close relative We may be able to listen to your story later, but not now.
3. Do not say, “Call me if you need anything.” Do call and ask specifically, “Can we go for a walk together? May I run errands for you? Meet you for coffee?
4. Do not leave our husbands out of the conversation. Do refer to his acts or words—serious or humorous. We are so comforted by knowing our husband has not been forgotten.
5. Do not assume we no longer want to participate in couples events. Invite us to anything. We may decline but will appreciate being asked.
6. Do not assume we go through the outlined grief process ‘by the book.’ Do accept that we are where we are. Marriages are brief, long, healthy, dysfunctional, intense, remote. Death comes suddenly or in tiny increments over years. Again our experiences are so different, as are we. So is our journey through grief.
7. Do not make ‘conversation only’ offers. “We’ll call you and we’ll go out to dinner.”—and then not follow up. Yes, we are sensitive in our grieving, but we’d rather hear you say, “I’ve been thinking of you.” than make a ‘conversation only’ offer.
On my journey as a widow, I have learned that we all change. And much of the change is good. We become faith filled because we can not face the day any other way. We become strong because we have no other choice. We are compassionate because our heart has been broken. As I listen to other widows stories I am awestruck at what they have learned and accomplished. Stories surface from history that I never noticed before. Betsy Ross, the seamstress of our first flag, was widowed three times. It was in her alone time after her first husband’s death that she had to learn upholstering to support herself. Her husband had been in the navy resulting in George Washington’s awareness of her new profession and skill. She became a successful career woman with a thriving upholstery business, remarried twice, and had seven daughters. This woman of faith grew strong and left a legacy through her loss.
One of my change points occurred in Africa. I traveled to follow in Bob’s footsteps to a place I had not been able to accompany him. I was connecting with believers whom he had assisted in broadcasting. Prior to my trip, I received an email asking me to speak to widows groups there since that was now my reality. “Of course.” In one season of my life I had taught Bible studies and my interpreter would be Bob’s friend. This would be a way for me to give back in Bob’s footsteps.
The result: I spoke to 7 groups of widows from 20 to 200. I spoke in one church service where the men were the predominant note-takers. I spoke to one assembly of 5 churches which I thought would be a group of widows. (I quickly sorted my notes from the widow and her pot of oil to the transitions in Joshua’s life.) I delivered my message with five pastors sitting behind me in large impressive chairs. After listening intently to my teaching, one pastor issued their pronouncement: “It is good.”
I can only say simply, I was changed. I remembered Bob’s encouragement to me to accept my first speaking engagement after my first book was published. I was hesitant. He said, “Honey, they want to hear the person behind the book.” So I went reluctantly. This was different. A different woman emerged in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Open Bible, hungry learners, I was energized and embraced the opportunity.
A second change point occurred in the Dominican Republic. I was treasuring a week of rest and relaxation after four of the hardest years of my life. It was my first trip alone. While I had expected to rest and read, I found myself signing up for any and all activities; snorkeling, horseback riding and learning to sail a catamaran. Being the only single woman to sign up for solo sailing lessons, my instructor eyed me with little enthusiasm and told me where to plant myself on the canvas. My eager attitude was soon deflated. “You can’t learn this. I’ll take you for a ride and we’ll go back.”
“Wrong,” I thought.
On my fourth lesson (and after my requested change in instructors) my new instructor said those delightful words. “You can dump me now.” This meant he would jump off on the beach and I was on my own.
There are no words to describe being alone on that canvas, gripping the rudder, feeling the wind at your back, and racing out into the Atlantic! “Honey, can you see me?” I shouted to the sky. It was as if he answered, “You’ll do this and more, sweetheart, and I’m not surprised.”
Back home after I described my adventure to my family, my grandson asked, “Nana, weren’t you afraid?”
“No,” was my definite answer. “If I failed and drowned, I’d see God and Grandpa. If I succeed, I’ve sailed a catamaran—solo. Nana has nothing to loose.”
Yes, we have changed. As we get acquainted again you’ll discover that we believe Romans 8:28 with a new tenacity. We have new and relevant gifts to offer not in spite of, but rather because of our loss. We are bold because we have already faced death in a part of ourselves. We laugh at things many people fear and count blessings among the mundane events of an ordinary day. Invisible? Let’s change that. Welcoming the widows reflects the heart of God.
Widows and Divorcees in later life: On Their Own Again (National Institute of Mental Health, 1999)