Just a few days after my husband’s passing, my phone rang. For the sake of protecting the guilty, let’s say the caller represented Shady Pines Old Folks Home.
Me: “A personal care home? Is that one of those places where they cook your meals, clean your room, and even help you with bathing?”
Shady: “It certainly is, Mrs. Clark. We can provide a wide range of services in your time of need.”
Me: “Awesome. Sign me up.”
My two college-age children wondered if grief had taken their mother’s sense of reason. It had not. Neither had it taken her sense of humor.
Shady: “Alright Mrs. Clark, I need some more information from you, starting with your date of birth.”
Me: “May 15, 1963.”
Shady: “1963? Mrs. Clark, did you mean to say 63?”
Me: “Sure did. I’m nifty at 50. . . Hello? You there?”
And so began the long list of encounters with folks who had little understanding of widows and our needs.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one-third of all women who become widowed are younger than age 60, and half of those widowed become so by age 65. In fact, seven out of ten baby boomers can expect to outlive their husbands. Here are nine things you need to know about the ever-increasing member of society, the widow:
1. A widow’s deepest pains last longer than a year. Immediately after a death, the church community is adept at responding with flowers or a casserole but far less gifted in maintaining a ministry to her long-term. Her experience can feel like major surgery—a radical amputation, to be specific. She may be numb for several months. After the cards and letters stop, the visits drop off, and friends return to their normal lives, her hardest work has just begun.
2. A grieving widow who lives alone may go several days without hearing another human voice, especially months after the initial funeral. Emails and text messages are good; however, phone calls and visits may be better. While this may not seem like the most efficient use of your time, efficiency and effectiveness are sometimes mutually exclusive.
3. A grieving widow’s pain is unique and volatile. What encourages one woman may be painfully unhelpful to another. Grief is like a virus that waxes and wanes with intensity. Emotional mine fields such as these may require intimate knowledge of the bereaved. A close friend might be better suited to visit than a newly hired pastor. Don’t confuse compassion for a church acquaintance with a call to take personal action. If you don’t know the widow well, allow one of her close friends to direct your ministry efforts.
4. A grieving widow is often physically and emotionally exhausted. Don’t call her late at night or early in the morning. Be patient if she is slow in responding to your acts of kindness. Graciously accept her “no thank you” when she says she’s not up to going to dinner. She isn’t refusing help or harboring bitterness. She may simply need rest.
5. A grieving widow loves her children. Watching her children suffer is a misery that compounds grief and one in which the body of Christ is uniquely suited to offer comfort. The day of my husband’s funeral, students from my children’s college (Covenant) drove more than four hours one-way just to be with my kids. The sight of several pews packed with young adults will forever stay with us. One of my son’s professors eats breakfast with my son nearly every Friday. Loving a widow’s children is loving the widow.
6. A grieving widow often feels second (or third) to everyone else. Months after my husband, Jim, died, an ice storm crippled our city. Power outages citywide and downed trees littered homes and businesses. The damage was so widespread that I couldn’t possibly ask church friends to leave their own homes to address mine. But leave they did. A tree had fallen through the roof of one church friend’s home, yet he and his dad headed first to my place. “I’m waiting on the insurance company to call me,” he said. “I can wait here working a chainsaw as easily as pace the floor there.”
7. A grieving widow’s life is not a tragedy but a gift. When she is ready, encourage her to serve. In many cases, the death of her spouse did not hamper her gifting. Quite the contrary, it is part of how God heals her. Don’t look at her through the lens of her loss, but rather chose to see God’s faithfulness as she deepens her trust in her Savior.
8. A grieving widow’s finances may dramatically change after the loss of the primary breadwinner. More than half of elderly widows now living in poverty were not poor before the death of their husbands. She may have life insurance policies, long-term savings plans, and family to lean on, yet still find her finances overwhelming. After my husband’s death, two of his friends—one an accountant, the other a senior bank vice president—helped me work out a budget based on my lower income level. And these two did not treat me like an obligation. Every time they left my home, a piece of my burden went with them.
9. God loves a grieving widow. He does not despise her tears nor shudder when she doubts her faith in the darkness. The widow knows much of Jacob’s wrestling with God. He walked with a limp the remainder of his earthly life, but gained a changed heart.
A grieving widow needs gospel-drenched compassion and not pity. While compassion walks beside the bereaved, pity stands off at a safe distance. The day my husband collapsed, my boss—a physician and head of a busy community clinic—canceled his appointments immediately and came to the hospital. He looked after my in-laws with uncanny tenderness and prayed with them. When my children came in from out of town, he wrapped his arms around them both and shed tears as I told them their dad was not expected to survive. To offer compassion in any circumstance is to share in another’s suffering, and in so doing, we mirror the suffering of Christ on our behalf.