Ministry Resources

The Life of the Widow – Part 3: Physical and Mental Considerations

Author: Charles Harris

Wesley Teterud says, “A widow’s health is at a higher risk of declining during the first few years of widowhood than at any other time in life” (Wesley M. Teterud, Caring for Widows: You and Your Church Can Make a Difference [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994], p. 45).

Among the most common complaints are fatigue, insomnia, and loss of appetite. If these arise, she needs to consult a physician for a check-up to determine as exactly as possible the causes of her problems. They could be physical or they could be emotional in nature.

Professionals sometimes speak of some physical problems as somatic illnesses. The term refers to actual physical abnormalities which some doctors conclude have mental difficulties as their source. An ulcer that may be caused by stress is an example. These could include shortness of breath, exhaustion, and digestive disturbances.

Often people confuse these with psychosomatic illnesses. With psychosomatic illnesses, people suffer the feelings of physical ailments but doctors can find nothing wrong with the parts of the body seemingly affected. Still, patients are fully convinced they have such things as cancer and remain of that opinion even after several scans by physicians indicate otherwise. Teterud declares, “The physical well-being of a widow affects her psychological or mental health. Symptoms such as depression, paranoia, fear, poor self-esteem, and suicidal thoughts reflect declining mental wellness” ( p. 46).

The lines below give consideration to certain physical and mental maladies often associated with grief. They begin by giving attention to insomnia. They then focus on depression, considering its causes, its several symptoms, and offering suggestions on recovering from it.


At the top of the list of physical disturbances for the widow or widower is that of insomnia. In my own case, I had never experienced difficulty with sleeplessness. Yet since my wife died, I have periodically known nights when I was awake for an hour or more, usually well after mid-night. One promise from the Bible that one can claim is that, “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat for he grants sleep to those he loves” (Psalm 127:2). Someone has said that instead of counting sheep in an effort to drop off to sleep, it is better to focus on the shepherd. I often say to myself when I am not sleeping at night, “Well, at least I am resting.”

However, sleeplessness is not limited to the recently widowed. Body and mind are genuinely inseparable so that what affects one automatically affects the other. Concerning all of the physical maladies one suffering grief may endure, James Peterson and Michael Briley write, “The anxiety of loss can deprive you of that much needed restorer, a good night’s sleep, and so keep you tense during the daytime. Hence you lose the rest and relaxation that your body needs to repair itself and function well” (James A. Peterson and Michael L. Briley, Widows and Widowhood [New York: Association Press, 1977], p. 86).

Strangely, some can experience the opposite of insomnia. No amount of sleep seems to be enough. Accordingly, they spend an abnormal amount of time in bed, even during the day.


Someone has classified depression as the common cold of mental difficulties. This suggests that almost every one experiences it to a greater or lesser degree during his or her lifetime. Only when it is severe enough to interfere with the normal functioning of a person’s daily activities is it of concern to mental health specialists. Some women know a troublesome portion of it during the mid-life crisis. Others may hear their doctor speak of their anxiety after child-birth as postpartum depression. Of course, then, the shock of the loss of a husband can bring a bout with depression.


Babette Ashby declares, “There are as many theories as to what causes depression as there are colors of the rainbow” (Babette Ashby, “Overcoming Depression” [Family Circle, June 1974], pp. 139-140). Expressed another way: as many different theories exist concerning the causes of depression as there are distinct schools of psychology within the discipline. Behaviorists suggest it is a learned reaction to some kind of specific stimuli. Biological theorists think depression is related to hormonal imbalance in the body.


A number of symptoms appear in the experience of one who is depressed to an abnormal degree. Having one or two of these infrequently likely does not indicate a cause for alarm. Further, these may overlap with indicators of other maladies. Self-diagnosis, then, is probably not the best approach to finding help for oneself. Still, it is wise to be as informed about depression as possible. Otherwise, one might conclude that he or she is the only one who ever had such strange and tormenting feelings.


Perhaps the hub of the wheel of depression resides in the predominance of a dejected mood. With it, one is plagued with feelings of discouragement, despondency, hopelessness, sadness, and pessimism. She comes to know a sense of guilt as never before in life. Yet, in many cases, she cannot pin-point what it is she has done wrong. With such a feeling of false guilt, it becomes difficult to find forgiveness and relief. The result is a tormented mind.

Lack of Energy

In a deep state of depression the person seems almost possessed with apathy. Former motivation for useful activity is gone. Routine chores become more difficult. A person so affected prefers to sit in one place with folded hands hopelessly staring into space. She refuses to be cheered by anyone or anything. Her listlessness brings a dull, mask-like expression on her face. All of her movements are at a slow pace. Every action of her body seems to require great, voluntary effort. It may even appear in slowness of speech. One speaks in low tones with a great economy of words. Or, she may appear to not want to speak at all.

I knew such a lady once. She gradually withdrew into a shell, concluding she was not physically able to do anything. She no longer cleaned her house, washed her family’s clothes, or cooked for them. Her bedroom was darkened day after day with all blinds closed. She sat in a chair with her eyes glued to the tv all day long. Surprisingly, though, when a church elected her husband as pastor she suddenly revived. Leaving her house for the first time in a long time, she began going with him to its meetings. As an accomplished pianists, she provided music at the keyboard for the small congregation. Her recovery from depression was dramatic!

Again, though, some experience a drive to hyperactivity as a symptom of depression. They stay busy, almost working frantically, hour after hour, sometimes working nearly day and night for a period of time.

Low Self-Esteem

Depression usually brings with it a low self-esteem. A person seems captured by a feeling of self reproach, worthlessness, and powerlessness. Driven by a false sense of guilt, she may speak of her sinfulness and of the punishment that is in store for her because or it.

Abnormal Eating Habits

The emotion of grief in the physical body seems incompatible to experiencing the joy of eating. Indeed, extreme sorrow can rob one of most if not all of her appetite. Relatives and friends may observe that the recently widowed woman is not eating. In response they encourage and even insist that she force herself toward the normal intake of food that is necessary to sustain her health. They may declare, “If you do not eat, you will become ill. Certainly, we cannot afford to now lose you from the family too.” She may reply, “I think if I tried to eat anything I would choke on every bite!”

Yet, paradoxically, some widows may experience the opposite. They engage in “nervous eating” in an unconscious attempt to drive away their sorrow through excessive eating.


Things which once brought pleasure to the depressed person seem no longer to be interesting. People whose company she once enjoyed bring no joy any more. Jokes at which she one time laughed are no longer funny. Favorite foods do not taste good to one in a depressed state.

When a depressed person does talk, the one subject of conversation is their “condition.” When discussing anything of their past, they seem to experience memory distortion. They recall none of the good they have known in days gone by. Nothing ever went well for them. Everything, absolutely everything is dark and black. Naturally, the more they talk of such things, the more depressed they get. All of this, of course, drives their friends away. No one wants to listen to another speak on and on of her conclusion that life is not worth living anymore. The loss of friends, then, makes her feel worse.

Diminished Ability to Concentrate

In a state of severe depression, the thought process often slows down. It seems as if a cloud covers the mind to hinder clear calculation. One experiences difficulty in concentration on a subject. She remembers little of what she has read. Memorization becomes a real chore.

On the other hand, morbid thoughts seem to force themselves into the mind and remain with repeated frequency. My grandmother related to me her own difficulties in this area long before anyone spoke much about depression. She said, “When first retiring for the night, insomnia keeps you from going to sleep. Then come thoughts of the past or present which fill your being with feelings of guilt. You think problems through and then go over them again and again. You seek to find what you have done to bring you into such a condition.”

Thoughts of Suicide

Suicide may even occur in connection with depression. The data suggest that more women than men attempt to take their own lives, but that men are more often successful than women. Such a tragedy does not just happen suddenly with no previous signs of trouble. A myth associated with suicide is that a person really intent on killing himself does not talk of it beforehand. Perhaps with its almost unbearable burden, the mind slowly begins to think of ending it all.

He or she gradually comes to the conclusion that they simply cannot stand to live in the state they are in any longer. Soon they may believe that their friends and family will be better off without them around. They may then come under such a delusion that their previous belief that suicide is a mortal sin resulting in eternal damnation is inhibited. They conclude that to take their life is the right thing to do! At that point, they likely start making specific plans on how best to end their life.

Obviously, then, when one begins to think of how to commit suicide, she should immediately seek a confidential person to share her thoughts with. That may help him or her to discover that they are being influenced by a lot of self-pity. Every one who desires good mental health should shun self-pity like the plague. Certainly, if one finds herself of the opinion that it is right to end her life, she must flee into the arms of some person or persons who can help her. Otherwise, the last step in the process is put into motion. Being convinced that it is the best thing she can do, she begins to plan and prepare for the day of her death at her own hands.

Strangely, the data suggests that suicide most likely does not occur when one is in the depth of depression. Rather, it comes when one appears to be recovering from the malady, so be on guard!

Recovering from Depression

Certainly, then, a widow who senses she experiences depression to an abnormal degree must seek the face of the Lord most earnestly for His help. Further, she needs to turn to ministerial and medical professionals for assistance. Doctors can prescribe anti-depressant medications. They tend to think of two kinds of depression. In the endogenous type, the excitants, catalysts of the malady, remain unidentified or they are ambivalent. Or the reaction to them is too intense and has continued too long. In the exogenous, or reactive type, that which has provoked the depression seems rather clear. Depression for a widow, then, fits this category. Ashby reports that medications appear to work better for the first type than the second (p. 140).

Along with this, there are certain practical suggestions which, if practiced over a period, will help an individual recover from depression. Seeking to combat an insatiable desire to talk of one’s depression, one should cease it and force herself to find other subject matter. To cope with the tendency to withdraw within in unwholesome self examination, one should find something outside herself to focus on instead. At the very least she is free from self deprecation if but for a brief period of time as she focuses elsewhere. At the same time, she should resist the drive to withdraw from associations with people. She may indeed feel that it hurts her to be in a crowd. She may cease even going to church. However, in this case, paradoxically, what seems to hurt will help in the long run.

As to handling the lack of drive to get one’s work done, a depressed widow might think of things in two categories: those she seems disposed to do, and those she doesn’t appear to have the energy to do. The first could include keeping her eyes glued to the tv hour after hour. The second might involve cleaning house. She will then give what she seems not to be able to do the higher priority. She will say to herself, “I will not allow myself to engage in what I want to do until I have completed what I must accomplish to live a healthier life”.

Joan Heilman presents a list of tips in discussing how to overcome depression (Joan R. Heilman, “Self-Help Tips to Rout the Blues” [Family Circle, July 12, 1963], pp. 93-97).

  1. The first is simply, “Get exercise”. She explains that physical exercise produces chemical changes in the body. It changes the level of hormones. It also helps a person psychologically, providing a sense of accomplishment and mastery. Something like brisk walking for 15 to 20 minutes a day for 3 to 5 days a week will produce highly desirable results.
  2. Then Heilman suggests, “Improve your nutrition.” She says that even a single deficiency in one’s diet can contribute toward depression. A good balanced diet is of the essence in combating depression.
  3. As to focusing on the cognative, Heilman advises, “Think your way out.” While it is a mistake to fall into the trap of engaging in thought warfare as a means of digging oneself out of depression, her list is worth considering. First, she says that one must become aware of the source of her problems. Understand that the symptoms likely come from the malady of depression, rather than such things as character weakness. The second suggestion in the realm of thought is to consider alternative explanations for some negative feelings. For example, if a friend fails to speak in the super market, rather than concluding she no longer likes you, maybe the truth is she did not see you.
  4. Heilman says next, “Socialize.” In doing so, resist the temptation to associate mostly with those who tolerate your constant speech about your problems. Rather, find those you can talk of lighter things, laugh, and have fun with.
  5. Finally, she counsels, “Check your thyroid function” and “Look over your medications.” This highlights the necessity of consulting a medical doctor when experiencing the symptoms of depression. The malady may have its roots in the malfunction of the physical body.

As to the importance of physical exercise, Joyce Brothers concurs with Heilman’s suggestion. She writes, “Physical exercise is one of the most positive things you can do for yourself. I guarantee that it will make you feel a little better—at least for the moment. And that is all one can expect in the early months of grief” (p. 200).

Balanced Diet

For the recently widowed person, adequate rest for her body is a must along with that of consuming a proper diet. Cooking regular meals for herself even if she is the only one eating at the table helps to guard against poor eating habits. One of the things which hinders this is that eating under such conditions may prove to be the loneliest time of the day. Accordingly, Peterson and Briley warn, “There may be a temptation to skip meals entirely or to turn to less-than-balanced snacks. Daylong nibbling on candy and other sweets might satisfy a craving or take the edge off your appetite, but it wreaks havoc with your system” (p. 96). The basics foods for daily intake should include meat and fish, dairy and grain, along with fruits and vegetables.

However, one should avoid the other extreme of over-eating. The phenomenon involves taking in more calories than your body burns during the day. The excess turns to fat, and that can contribute to cholesterol problems, heart difficulties, high blood pressure, diabetes, gallbladder abnormalities and strokes. Eating smaller servings and refusing second helpings can assist in the control of the problem of being overweight. Maybe learning to leave the table just before feeling full is not a bad idea. It is a fact that one can train him or herself to change eating habits.

Adequate Exercise

Scholars above have noted that regular physical exercise is also necessary to recovery from depression. Peterson and Briley say, “The scientific evidence that exercise is beneficial to health—in fact, a necessary ingredient in any health program—has been overwhelmingly persuasive” (p. 92). Walking, jogging, swimming, bicycling, and aerobics are a few exercises which can benefit a widow’s health. In some of these she may be able to team up with another widow. That helps to relieve her loneliness.

Further, exercise helps to relieve tension and generally promotes better sleep at night. The secret, of course, is regular exercise. A common suggestion is at least three hours a week or thirty to forty minutes a day. Recommendations generally call for somewhat vigorous, yet not strenuous, activity. Taking a stroll for four or five blocks down the shady street and back twice a week will not help much. Peterson and Briley write, “Exercise must not be a sometime thing. You cannot expect to realize its benefits doing it once a month or whenever the spirit moves you” (p. 94).

Periods of Relaxation

Building into one’s schedule periods of enjoyable relaxation seems necessary to sustain good mental and physical health. After all, the Creator Himself planned for man to relax and rest for several hours out of every twenty-four of the day. He provided the night for that purpose. When fighting insomnia, Martin Luther would say, “Devil, I must sleep. That is God’s command, work by day, sleep by night, so go away” (Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther [New York: The New American Library of World Literature, Inc., 1950], p. 284).

One is wise to spend at least a couple of hours before bedtime in some form of relaxation that he most enjoys. He or she will find themselves looking forward to that at the end of the day, and that makes their time at work seem shorter. Preachers Joe Trull and James Carter observe, “Recreation or a hobby that both provides enjoyment and diverts the mind from ministering tasks are important for a balanced life” (Joe E Trull and James E. Carter,. Ministerial Ethics: Moral Formation for Church Leaders, 2nd. ed. [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004], p. 70).

Even more, Jehovah established the Sabbath principle for the sake of man, setting aside one full day a week for rest and worship. Then one not only needs a period each day in which to relax, but even more he needs to look forward to a longer period weekly for engaging in enjoyable things. For minister Pierce observes, “A sensible recreational program will help insure longevity in the ministry and in the family. Recreational activity is always much less expensive than an occasional hospital stay or even a moderately priced funeral” (Pierce, T. Burton, Ministerial Ethics: A Guide for Spirit-Filled Leaders [Springfield, MO: Logion Press, 1996], p. 270).

Finally, one’s relaxation schedule should include a still longer period which we have come to call a vacation. The Lord scheduled a sabbatical year for nature, man, and animals to rest in Old Testament times. “Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, [Jesus] said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’ So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place” (Mark 6:31-32).

One can work hard and successfully wade through a lot of difficult steams in life if he or she will follow God’s plan of taking his breaks daily, weekly, and annually. Of course, some will say, “But the devil never takes any time off, so why should I?” Yet, who said believers are supposed to pattern their lives after Satan? Besides, he doesn’t have a physical body to consider.


In this article I have given consideration to certain physical and mental maladies often associated with grief. I began by giving attention to insomnia. Then I focused on depression, considering first its possible causes. I followed with a discussion of its several symptoms, including dejection, lack of energy, low self esteem, abnormal eating habits, anhedonia, diminished ability to concentrate, and thoughts of suicide. Finally, I have offered suggestions on recovering from depression. These included a balanced diet, adequate physical exercise, and periods of relaxation.

WORKS CITED Ashby, Babette. “Overcoming Depression.” Family Circle, June 1974, pp. 139-140. Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. New York: The New American Library of World Literature, Inc., 1950. Heilman, Joan R. “Six self-Help Tips to Rout the Blues.” Family Circle, July 12, 1963, pp. 93-97. Peterson, James A. and Michael L. Briley. Widows and Widowhood. New York: Association Press, 1977. Teterud, Wesley M. Caring for Widows: You and Your Church Can Make a Difference. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994. Trull, Joe E., and James E. Carter. Ministerial Ethics: Moral Formation for Church Leaders, 2nd. ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004.

What's Next

We would love to answer any question you have or help suggest next steps on your journey.