Scholars, both sacred and secular, have given much attention to the subject of the grieving process in recent decades.
They have produced a number of articles and books on the subject. Colleges and universities offer courses on death and dying. No small amount of space in such studies focuses on coping with the grieving process. All of this provides an opportunity to consider suggested systems for defining the stages of grief, a listing of some specific aspects of what is involved in grieving, some positive benefits from the experience for those who successfully work through their grief, the need for including children as they also pass trough a period of sorrow, and facing early decisions on housing.
Classification Systems for the Stages of Grief
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross has given society a classic work on the grieving process from the viewpoint of the dying persons. In her work she sets forth five stages through which they pass (Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying [New York: The MacMillan Company, 1969], pp. 38-137). The first is denial, “No, not me, it cannot be true.” In the second, anger, the patient asks, “Why me?” Combined with the question are anger, rage, envy, and resentment. The third brings a period of bargaining in which the seriously ill person reasons, “If God has decided to take me from this earth and he did not respond to my anger pleas, he may be more favorable if I ask nicely” (p. 82). During the fourth stage depression seizes the patient. Finally, in the fifth stage the terminally ill person comes to accept the fact of his or her approaching death.
Though Kubler-Ross views the grieving process from the point of view of the dying, it seems that many have extended the import of her work to cover their family members, as if they also pass through similar stages. However, the author discusses the experiences of the patient’s loved ones later in her book. To illustrate, with regard to the wife of a terminally ill husband, she writes:
“Serious illness and hospitalization of a husband, for example, may bring about relevant changes in the household which his wife has to get accustomed to. She may feel threatened by the loss of security and the end of her dependence on her husband. She will have to take on many chores previously done by her husband and will have to adjust her own schedule to the new, strange, and increased demands. [Suddenly, she may] have to get involved in business matters and their financial affairs, which she previously avoided doing” (pp. 157, 158).
Kubler-Ross recognizes that the adjustments demanded of the family will not only continue through the loved one’s illness and death but long after those traumatic experiences. She lists their difficulties as including problems of communication, coping with the reality of death in the home, and resolution of grief and anger (pp. 160-180). With regard to communication with the diseased person, for example, she suggests that medical personnel and family members should “. . . give each patient a chance for the most effective possible treatment and not regard each seriously ill patient as terminal, thus giving up on them” (pp. 140, 141). After all, she has found that most of them continue to hold on to hope until near the very end.
Joyce Brothers lists three stages of grief for the widow. The first involves shock and numbness. The second contains “a compound of emotions—longing, panic, helplessness, loneliness, anger, resentment, depression, self-pity, denial” (Joyce Brothers, Widowed [New York” Ballantine Books, 1990], p. 66). The third brings acceptance. In a similar manner Wesley Teterud speaks of the stages of grief as including shock, numbness, denial, anger, guilt, and finally accommodation (Wesley M. Teterud, Caring for Widows: You and Your Church Can Make a Difference [Grand Rapids, MI: Maker Books, 1994], p. 33).
Miriamm Nye lists the stages of grief for the widow as simply shock and numbness, disorganization, and reorganization (Miriamm Baker Nye, But I Never Though He’d Die: Practical Help for Widows [Philadelphia: The Westminister Press, 1978], p. 26). During the period of disorganization, she says that one sometimes does foolish things. She explains with an example of her experience as a widow of a farmer. She writes “After the sale of our machinery and tools, I unwittingly continued to pay insurance premiums on them” (p. 28).
Words of Caution
However, scholars offer words of caution as to using a classification system which lists the stages of grief. As early as in her classic work on the subject, Kubler-Ross acknowledges that these stages “. . . will last for different periods of time and will replace each other or at times exist side by side” (p. 138).
According to Brothers, “The stages of grief may be predictable, but there is very little that is orderly about a widow’s emotions in the weeks and months—sometimes years—following her husband’s death. She is caught up in a passionate and painful maelstrom” (p. 66).
After listing a possible five stages of grief, Teterud writes, “Some people think that a widow will automatically experience these phases in chronological order” (p. 33). He concludes that individuals are too unique for that to happen.
Kate Convissor acknowledges the existence of models for the grief process as she writes, “But the model becomes a noose when it is used to label our experience or when we define our own progress against it” (Kate Convissor, Young Widow: Learning to Live Again [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992], p. 62). She says further, “Grief is not a lock-step progression of stages. Rather, it is a dynamic process with common features” (p. 63). Again, she declares, “There is no worn path or tidy garden steps to grieving, no timetable for being done” (p. 63). In her experience Convissor reports, “Grieving comes and goes in waves of lessening intensity. The same emotions spiral round, but with diminished force” (p. 69).
Aspects of the Grieving Process
The above discussion indicates it may not always be helpful to speak of specific stages through which one successively passes in the grieving process. Perhaps it is better to simply speak of some specific aspects of the experience.
Writers sometimes focus on the first reaction in the grief process as including shock, numbness, and denial. Regarding the second of these, Nye says, “Thank God for numbness! It prevents us from sensing the full extent of bereavement at the onset. By degrees we accept and integrate the loss of a beloved person into our life experience” (pp. 26, 27). Denial, too, may be somewhat of a “natural” reaction. A person experiencing initial grief may well find himself saying, “This is not real. It must be a bad dream. Surely I will awake and discover it was all just a nightmare!” Then, what on the surface may appear as a negative thing may prove to be positive and helpful. As long as denial is not excessive and extended to an unhealthy degree, it may serve as a profitable defense mechanism in the early stages of grief.
Encouraging the grieving person not to go to far in denial, Maxine Jensen counsels, “Look back. Don’t be afraid. Don’t try to close the past out of your life. Life has been good. Exciting. Full of unforgettable moments” (Maxine Down Jensen, Beginning Again: How the Widow Can Find New Life Beyond Sorrow [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1977] p. 106).
An unusual emotional reaction to the loss of a husband is that of anger. The emotion may project toward the deceased, the doctor, the employer, and even God. Not surprisingly, a feeling of anger, envy toward those who still have their companions may come. It may even appear as anger at the mate for having died, though the emotion cannot be a rational one. I recall being in Africa and hearing of a recently widowed lady standing at her husband’s coffin at the funeral and yelling, “Why did you die and leave me? You left me with these five children to raise on my own and without any monetary support. How could you do this to me?” I falsely concluded that such a reaction was possible only among a pagan people. However, now I learn that women in America experience the same emotions and display similar reactions.
Suggesting the rather common occurrence of such an experience, Nye writes, “You may feel anger at being left behind, at being left with heavy responsibilities, at being left to rear the children alone, at being left with a mountain of debt” (pp. 36, 37). James Peterson and Michael Briley report the case of a widow who did so. She understood later how unusual such an emotion was.
Then she counseled, “If you want to help people grieve you must let them cry and be angry and be illogical” (James A. Peterson, and Michael L. Briley, Widows and Widowhood: A Creative Approach to Being Alone [New York: Association Press, 1977], p. 4). Peterson and Briley say further, “It is almost a natural reaction for people to tell a bereaved to ‘buck up,’ ‘be strong,’ ‘don’t cry.’ But this does not speak of the widows need to cry and to grieve. There is little consolation for most widows in such cheery little exhortations” (p. 8).
Anger can even be directed toward self with the end result of almost unbearable guilt. One may find herself repeating, “If I had done things differently, or if I had done more.” Catherine Marshall had such an experience following the funeral of her husband, Peter. She reports, “First, I sought to blame myself. Had I done everything possible to save Peter? Had it really been God’s will that Peter die? Or was this just another failure on my part? Had I, for example, somehow failed to fulfill the conditions of answered prayer?” (Catherine Marshall, To Live Again [New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1957], p. 22).
She did this before she went on to feel anger toward devoted friends. She found herself blaming those who constantly sought him for speaking engagements. Perhaps they hastened his death from a heat attack at the youthful age of only 46 years. Their requests added to his already heavy load as a pastor and as Chaplain of the United States Senate. Then she even thought of blaming God. Could He not have prevented her dear companion’s death?
Wrestling with Loneliness
Perhaps next to depression, loneliness is the next greatest monster a woman bereaved of her husband must wrestle with. Peterson and Briley observe, “When children depart for college or marriage, the home becomes very still. There is much less interaction and less communication. But when one’s mate dies, all is silence” (p. 112). Nye says, “Nearly all widows speak of the difficulty they have in cooking and eating alone, sleeping alone, making decisions alone, attending events alone. If you have never been alone, you may think the aloneness is the sole cause of your loneliness anxiety” (pp. 43, 44).
Times when loneliness is most acute include the anniversary of the death of the spouse, holidays, and wedding anniversaries. Evenings at home also magnify loneliness. Since it comes with greater force in the evenings, Brothers observes, “I probably would have been much better off if I had done something with my evenings—signed up for a course in computers or French or eighteenth-century English literature, joined an exercise class, found a piano teacher (I used to be a competent player), done something, anything, with people who shared my interests” (p. 108).
Teterud says, “Like a low-grade headache, loneliness continues to afflict widows long after the other emotional components of grief are discontinued” (p 38). In keeping with comments below concerning the withdrawal tendency, Teterud declares further, “Loneliness can lead to isolation. Widows may fall into the rut of withdrawing from church gatherings, social events, and intimate friendships because personal loneliness cannot be repressed and must be carried alone” (p. 39).
One way to fight loneliness is by making new friends. Brothers says, “Try to talk with one new person a week. You may not feel like it, but it can be a lifesaver. You may also find that it is a relief to spend time with someone who does not think of you only as a widow . . .” (p. 199).
One of the best ways to combat loneliness, as well as feelings of worthlessness, is to become engaged in meaningful activities in serving others. Many organizations exist to assist individuals to do just that. To become involved, though, one must take the initiative. Peterson and Briley observe, “Undoubtedly, many volunteer or community organizations would welcome you, but they are not going to seek you out. They do not know who you are or where you are. If you are fortunate, you may have a friend in one of these groups who will invite you to join him or her in exploring the situation. However, the initiative generally must come from your own need to associate” (p. 122).
Resisting the Withdrawal Tendency
Following the sudden death of her husband in an airplane crash, Verdell Davis wrote, “In any life-altering suffering and trial the danger of becoming angry, disillusioned, and bitter or of becoming lethargic and succumbing to fatalism is very real” (Verdell Davis, Let Me Grieve But Not Forever [Nashville, TN: W. Publishing Group, 1994], p. 16). Widows may wonder if they have any reason to get up in the morning or even to live any more. They forget, of course that their children, grand-children, and other family members certainly need them.
“A kindred reaction of the bereaved is the loss of all zest for life. The sense of futility about everything is like a thick gray blanket smothering all initiative, stifling laughter, snuffing out hope, drugging energy. The smallest task becomes a gigantic effort. Why cook a meal when there is no one to share it? Entertaining looms as an impossible effort. Why dust or polish the furniture when there is no one to see or care? Anyway, more dust will have settled by tomorrow. Why bother about clothes or grooming when there is no man around to notice a new dress or to comment on a becoming hair-do? Why go through the motions?” (p. 121).
Wise friends may even suggest some ways a widow can move again to self-sufficiency. In that case she should accept their prodding. For, as Jensen observes, “If you refuse to try any of these and want only to be on the receiving end for invitations out, if you sit before the television and hug your grief about you like a robe—in other words, if you refuse to recover—then your friends may envision slipping away to more receptive individuals” (pp. 53, 54). If you feel that acquaintances are neglecting you, Jensen counsels that by all means never rebuke your friends with, “Well, it is about time you called!” (p. 54).
There may be valid reasons why some forget the widow so soon after the funeral. The change which comes into her life leaves some who are not sure how to relate to her now that she is without a husband. Convissor writes, “In our culture the young widow falls into a social void. Those who meet us shuffle uncomfortably; they avoid our eyes; they edge away. Suddenly we’ve become real conversation stoppers” (p. 123).
One alternative for a widow is that, after the loss of her husband she does well to seek some of her companionship among other widows. Convissor observes:
“Only young widows are also parenting bereaved children and feeling insecure and adolescent about their looks. We know the importance of remembering birthdays, and we have the same morbid sense of humor. I had no idea how numerous we were until I began researching this book. We are many, and we are good companions into a new, single life” (p. 127). With a word of caution, though, Nye advises that one avoid fostering close friendships where the partner tends to smother (p. 53).
Of course, moments of solitude sometimes serve a useful purpose. Convissor says, “I didn’t need to ‘talk about it’ as many grieving people do; I needed time and solitude” (p. 167). However, as Peterson and Briley write, “It is good to talk. If we can find an understanding friend, particularly if we can find a friend who has gone down the valley of the shadows, nothing helps so much as to let our emotions pour out in a veritable flood” (p. 24). Jensen advocates finding ways for young widows with children to engage adult company, such as joining a bowling league. She reports that one did just that. Afterward, she declared that she “. . . began to look forward to her night out with adults as a relief from constantly conversing with two small children” (p. 19).
Marshall counsels that “. . . isolation is not the way toward mental health. Of course, the newly bereaved person needs periods of stabilizing solitude both for physical rest and to gain perspective. But in between times, [they need] to accept as fully as [they] can the love that flows from friends and family” (p. 54). After all, theirs is but a small reflection of the infinite love and concern of God for those in grief. He is the “God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3). The Sunday following her husband’s death and funeral, Marshall decided to follow her own advice. She went to the service in the sanctuary where her husband pastored. She says, “Going to church that Sunday was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but postponing it would only have made it harder” (p. 54).
Jensen suggests that, if not invited out by others, one should invite them to her house. She says, “Extend an invitation—to shop, to a play or movie, to a museum, to church. Others may be lonely too. They may be shy” (p. 55). Despite such wise counsel she tells of a widow who was excellent at cooking and baking, yet, “No longer does she serve even simple dinners to close friends. No longer does she light the burner under the coffeepot to share a cup” (p. 20). Instead she spends her free time sleeping or watching television, sometimes as much as fourteen hours a day!
Assisting Children through Grief
The widow should not forget the children who have been orphaned. They hurt too. For example, as Convissor writes, “We may be puzzled by their oblique statements and questions, concerned about behavior changes, bothered by the sudden outbursts or periodic withdrawal. We may be driven crazy by their hyperactivity or aggressive play. Sadness and crying we could recognize as grief; these reactions are maddening and confusing” (p. 93). Consequently, as Nye says, it is a mistake to assure that a child adjusts more readily to the loss of a loved one than an adult. She writes, “Losing a parent who had earned the living is bad enough. But losing even, temporarily, a parent who has made life worth living is cause for total grief in the children’s world” (p. 65).
To help ease the pain, Convissor declares, “Children of all ages need to be told immediately, clearly, and simply what has happened to their parents” (p. 98). They need assurances as to who will take care of them now that daddy is gone. Some, like the widow, may blame themselves for their father’s death, with those, “What-if-I-had-done-more- or-differently” reasoning.”
Even so, Mrs. Marshall at first thought to shelter her nine year old son whose father had died just four days after his birthday. She writes, “My first inclination after Peter’s death had been to shield Peter John as completely as possible. How much could a nine year old stand? Perhaps he should be sent away to a friend’s or a neighbor’s until the services were over. Might not exposing him to this time of upheaval leave permanent scars?” (p. 18).
Marshall reasoned with herself:
“Our son has emotional needs too. One of them was to be loved, to know that he belonged. He needed to feel, along with the rest of us, the tenderness at the center of heartbreak and the warmth of the Christian community” (pp. 18, 19). On a level which they can understand, the widow needs to explain to her children what happens to the deceased father’s body. Childhood and youth training needs to move along as nearly as possible at the same pace as it would have if death had not visited the family.
The wise surviving spouse will take care not to coddle the children in pity just because they have lost a father or mother. Still, a widow should guard against a tendency to vent her anger at the loss of her husband toward the children. Convissor writes, “Because of their loss, our children may become more aware of pain in others, more tolerant of strong emotion, and will certainly have a greater understanding of death and loss (p. 113).
Concerning younger children, Convissor observes, “They may become clingy and anxious or regress to a younger developmental age—wetting the bed, wanting a bottle or blanket, not talking or walking” (p. 95). Children who are a little older may be haunted by a feeling that they are a burden to the widowed mother.
As to adult children, Brothers says, “Very little has been written about the adult child who loses a parent—yet the parent-child relationship is probably the strongest bond that exists, and every year millions of adults lose a parents. Coping with the death of a parent is one of the most important and difficult emotional tasks of adult life” (p. 176).
As an illustration of things one should avoid in relating with children in grief, Nye warns against telling a young lad who has lost his father that he will need to be the man of the house now. She writes, “. . . expecting a child to skip adolescence in order to become a full-fledged baby-sitter, or a steady breadwinner is overloading. And the overload may rest heavily on a burden of unresolved grief” (p. 65). Even a young adult who has lost a father may feel he must end his educational studies to come home and assist in the operation of the family business.
Making Early Housing Decisions
Almost instantly upon the death of a husband, the widow is faced with questions of housing in her future. Housing adjustments in life for the widow begin with a decision as to whether or not to return home to stay the first night after the funeral. Some appear to find that difficult. In some cases, family members or friends will stay with her for a few days until her fears diminish some. I had little difficulty since my daughter continued to live at home with me. I still used our bedroom, though my wife had died there, with little trouble.
Concerning the matter of making an immediate decision to change housing arrangements, Marshall writes, “Sometimes one’s friends are inclined to feel that a swift change in setting will hasten the healing process. For most people, and for me in particular, this would have been running away. Changing my setting, even removing all physical reminders of my old life, would have left me the same person” (p. 51).
In situations where family members move back to their own homes after a few days, the transition period may bring the added fears for one’s safety in living alone. Suggestions which may help include that of looking in the floor of the back seat of an automobile before unlocking and entering on the way home. It seems that some criminals like to hide there.
Further, Jensen suggests, “Ring the doorbell when entering an empty house or apartment. Most burglars would rather get out than face someone. In ringing the doorbell, you give them a chance” (p. 65). Then she adds, “Never enter when the house appears to have been invaded. Instead, go to a neighbor’s and call the police” (p. 66). Included in the helpful advice is that of using automatic timers for lights when away from home. However, avoid on-at-dusk and off-at-dawn controls. Finally, a widow living alone may be wise to pull the blinds early in the evening.
Reaping the Benefits of the Grieving Process
Concerning the possibility of experiencing growth through the loss of a spouse, Nye writes, “Many people live with zest for unfolding possibilities. They demonstrate that persons of thirty, fifty, seventy, and even ninety years on this earth can grow intellectually, emotionally, socially, spiritually—if they will” (p. 73). Yet, as Convissor says, “Suffering creates broken, angry people as well as soft, loving ones” (p. 76).
Peterson and Briley place the emphasis on the positive. They suggest, “The loss of a mate can be a maturing experience in that one must build a new life. That life can have many advantages, and it is important for each person to recognize and capitalize on them” (pp. 9, 10).
As to the possible benefits of grief, Convissor writes, “In the crucible of suffering, the fires of divinity refine the scrapes of our humanity. Suffering is indeed a sacred process” (p. 77). Yet, she continues, “I have not been sainted by suffering. If anything I am more aware of my own discomfort, clumsiness, and avoidance. But a seed has been planted” (p. 77). Among the benefits of grief which come through a unifying process. Convissor explains, “I am linked to suffering humankind everywhere and throughout time. I have entered an ocean of human lamentation” (p. 77).
Experiencing the loss of a companion can make one a more understanding person. What she now possesses she can share with those who come behind. This means the years she has left on earth can be more worthwhile than would have been possible otherwise. Of course, as Davis notes, “Most of us would not mind being a saint[,] we just do not want to take the course for sainthood. We wouldn’t mind coming out gold[,] we just don’t want to go through the refiner’s fire. And being like clay in the potter’s hand doesn’t appeal to us too much either” (p. 82).
In this article I have considered suggested systems for defining the stages of grief along with some words of caution as to rigidly using these systems in personal application. I have listed of some specific aspects of what is involved in grieving. These include denial, anger, loneliness, and the tendency to withdraw. I have further focused on some positive benefits from the experience for those who successfully work through their grief, the privilege for including children as they also pass trough a period of sorrow, and facing early decisions on housing.