When Husbands Die Young

I stood with my back to the wall, isolated, letting conversations wash over me like rain. I was a bystander who no longer fit. Though the room was crowded I felt alone. The walls groaned as they compressed, but no one else seemed to notice oxygen being siphoned from the room, or space collapsing on itself. If I didn’t leave, I would suffocate, or worse, scream.

Anxiety was a fixture of my new life. I was 30, and my husband had died. Sometimes I awoke to the sound of my own voice screaming his name, drenched in a cold sweat. Other nights were sleepless, the pain visceral. I lived in a fog, and then reality began to settle. He wasn’t coming back.

Only 0.6 percent of American women are widowed when younger than 35. I’m a major anomaly, and people haven’t always known what to do with me.

But the church can help. Here are six practical ways.

1. Give the gospel.

Let’s face it: the death of a young person is jarring. Especially when it’s sudden, death feels nothing like a joyous homegoing. In the first raw days, well-meaning sentiments like “We can rejoice that he’s with Jesus” weren’t comforting at all. I didn’t care; I wanted him back.

I needed to know Jesus was weeping with me and not a stranger to my sorrow (Heb. 4:14–15; Isa. 53). I needed permission to struggle, time to wrestle with questions I never thought I’d ask. God, do I still believe you are who you say you are?

I needed to be shepherded, not with platitudes, but with the power of the gospel. A high view of God’s sovereignty was also crucial. The “what ifs” wouldn’t have changed anything. As I dwelt on truths like renewal and redemption, the weight of needless guilt began to lift.

2. Expect tangible grace.

On my wedding day, I anticipated many years together—babies, little league, ministry. A young widow grieves what could have been, not just what was. She fears the memories will fade since there’s not a lifetime of them. She fears the day she’s no longer associated with her husband.

When all her expectations have been stripped away, the widow needs to know she can expect Jesus. Because of the cross, she can expect grace.

“Ami, God’s grace is almost tangible right now.” On the night Jon died, my pastor’s words pierced through the shock—tangible grace. It became a banner blazoned across the months of deep grief. Look for grace. Expect it.

The prophet Isaiah writes, “[The LORD] will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young” (Isa. 40:11). I learned to expect Jesus to comfort, satisfy, carry, strengthen, and bring me back to himself.

3. Help with stresses beyond grief.

There was no time to prepare, no last words or slipping away gently. Instead, I saw him code, witnessed CPR, and heard his ribs break. After an hour, I was told I had to give permission to stop. You can imagine my shock and near hysteria.

Traumatic grief is closely related to post-traumatic stress. It involves extended nightmares, anxiety, intense fear, preoccupation with the scene of the trauma, and prolonged confusion. At times I thought I was legitimately losing my mind.

Help a young widow realize she’s dealing with grief and trauma. Unravel the lies when she can’t do so on her own. Point her to the cross where Jesus met destruction so she would never be destroyed or utterly crushed (2 Cor. 4:7–18; Isa. 42:3).

Additionally, she might also have the label “single mom” thrust on her. Love her children—and not in word only. Be an integral part of their lives. Get down in the muck. Chances are she needs more support than she verbalizes.

4. Realize remarriage is often an intense desire.

I was shocked at how quickly the idea of remarriage flitted across my mind, accompanied by deep feelings of guilt and betrayal. At first, contemplating remarriage created a spiral of confusion and questions. What would I do with my wedding rings and pictures? How could I kiss someone else? But I’ll always love Jon. Is there room for two?

Help the widow know her thoughts are normal. Tell her she’s complete in Christ, beloved, precious, and lacking no good thing (Eph. 1).

Along the same lines, her desire for sex doesn’t magically cease. What does it look like to return to a life of chastity? It’s a vulnerable and difficult topic, but she’ll need someone to tackle it with her.

5. Walking on eggshells doesn’t help.

For months no one told me about pregnancies, leaving me to hear by word-of-mouth or social media. While I struggled with new babies and weddings, I wanted the opportunity to rejoice with my friends. As the gospel gives grace to weep with one another, it also gives grace to rejoice with one another.

6. Ask specific questions.

“Let us know if you need anything,” is well meaning, but it’s usually not productive. Asking “What do you need today or tomorrow?” allows a sufferer to pinpoint something tangible.

Other great questions include “What are you struggling with this week?” and “What do you miss about him today?”

Moreover, take initiative to meet needs. Connect the widow to community, and teach the body to show active compassion—shoveling her car out of snow, cutting her grass, showing up to help her move, crying together, laughing together. I’m thankful I was cared for so beautifully. I could write pages.

Grief is a tangled knot, more chaotic and complicated than Hollywood could even attempt to portray. But now the walls no longer collapse. I can breathe normally in a crowd. I have joy, and I remember who I am.