Understandably, the loss of a companion whom one has selected as a partner in marriage for life shatters the world of the widow or widower. Everything changes. Nothing will ever be exactly the same again. In a sense, a part of one’s life ends on the day of the death of the spouse. The task, then, becomes that of rebuilding a new life for oneself.
Such a simple thing as the passing of time helps some. Joyce Brothers writes, “I could hardly believe how markedly my sadness, my depression, my fears, my anger, my loneliness, have diminished as the months dragged by. They have not disappeared entirely, but I am healing. And I know it” (Joyce Brothers, Widowed (New York: Ballantine Books, 1990), p. 96).
However, Jim Smoke says the rebuilding process comes in three stages (Jim Smoke, Turning Your World Right Side Up (Colorado Springs, CO: Focus on the Family Publishing, 1995), pp. 2, 3). The first involves looking back on life and asking, “If only I had . . . .” He calls the second the forward-fear projection stage. During that period the questions include, “What if you run out of money? What if you never remarry? What if you get sick and have no one to look after you? Or what if the stock market crashes and the gasoline supply dries up? What if your children become delinquent? The list is endless” (p. 2). In the third, one begins to deal with the present. The widow begins to say, “I can be responsible for myself’”; “I can rebuild and go on with my life” (p. 2).
At the death of a spouse, one’s life changes permanently. Much of what he or she has known in the past is gone forever. For some time previously, the life of the widow had been inseparably entwined with that of another person. Now, she hardly knows who she is. Further, should one no longer wear the wedding ring? Some widows come to a place where they decide to remove it from their finger. Perhaps now they begin to think of the possibility of dating again.
Still, as Kate Convissor notes, “We take these steps, but our emotions don’t settle obediently into place like cats in the sun” (Kate Convissor, Young Widow: Learning to Live Again (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), p. 133). Maybe there is some truth in what she calls the widow’s maxim, “Fake it ‘til you make it” (p. 133). Perhaps self-confidence begins to build anew with such actions. Likely the hour has come to think of how to devote some time to helping others more than addressing one’s own need of help.
The first step in the process of rebuilding one’s life is to realize that such a thing is possible. A close friend of mine lost his wife suddenly one day in a tragic automobile accident. His own life seemed to hang on a shoe string for many weeks following that event. He was physically unable to attend his sweetheart’s funeral. Thankfully, he recovered and lived a normal life for several decades afterwards. In time, he found another lady who had herself been widowed. The two married and enjoyed a number of years in happiness together. When my wife died, he sought me out and privately commented, “You need to know that there is life beyond the loss of a dear companion.”
The rebuilding of the widow’s life focuses on such things as where to live, whether or not to seek a job, and the question of remarriage. In all of this, Catherine Marshall suggests simply, “The bereaved must find new and creative patterns for the rebuilding of their lives” (Catherine Marshall, To Live Again (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1957), p. 304).
More Permanent Housing Plans
The question as to permanent housing inevitably arises following the death of a mate. However, almost every writer on the subject of widowhood suggests caution on making the big decision concerning that issue too soon after the funeral of a mate. For example, realizing that there may be exceptions, Brothers says, “But if you can possibly avoid it—do not sell your house, do not move, do not make a major purchase, do not make a major change in your life. Put everything on hold for a year” (p. 189).
What about moving in to live with married children? To move in with children is almost certainly to lose one’s independence. In fact, the widow may experience a reversal of roles in her relationship with her children. They soon act as if they feel they have shifted to the position of the ones now in charge. They may unconsciously conclude that their mother has moved to a stage of helplessness and in need of someone stronger to make decisions for her. However, Brothers counsels:
“Do not let others take over your life, do not let your children or anyone else step in and try to run your life, and do not let them manage your money or your affairs. Too often relatives, and sometimes friends, tend to think they know how the widow should conduct her life and affairs better than she does herself. This is rarely the case” (p. 187).
James Peterson and Michael Briley say:
“The widow desires and values the personal independence and sense of freedom. She does not wish to give up running her own household and become a peripheral member of another one. In her own home, she can retain control and determine her own comings and goings and work patterns” (James A. Peterson and Michael L. Briley, Widows and Widowhood: A Creative Approach to Being Alone (New York: Association Press, 1977), p. 139).
They conclude that evidence suggests that the two family living arrangement is not the best for most.
What of moving to be nearer to one’s married children? Sharing her response to the question with one widow, Maxine Jensen writes:
“My advice was for her to remain here with friends rather than move close to her children. Children, like friends, lead busy lives. They are involved in their own interests. There are times when living in close proximity to your children brings not only loneliness, but frustration. Parents discover the young people don’t have much time for them” (p. 43).
Further, children may not continue to live in that area indefinitely, or even for very long.
For the older widow, what about moving to a retirement home? Whether or not she continues to own and operate an automobile may influence her decision on retirement home living. Lack of transportation obviously hinders social interaction. Moving into a retirement community may help.
“For widows who remarry, Peterson and Briley write, “One basic suggestion is that they do not try to live in the home they had occupied with another mate. There are too many memories associated with that house, constant reminders of yesterday that can add to the ever-present problems of adjusting to any new marriage” (p.174).
A second question the widow faces in seeking to rebuild her life concerns whether or not she desires to marry again. In some cultures, the questions regarding remarriage for a widow hardly arise. Peterson and Briley report:
“In the traditional Chinese family, a widow was not supposed to remarry; in fact her husband’s family could block any new union. Furthermore, she was not allowed to take any of her property into a second marriage. There were both social and economic sanctions against remarriage for the widow” (p. 168).
I have even known some Christian believers who consider it wrong to think of marrying again following the death of a spouse. For them, somehow that would be unacceptable. They seem to conclude that the Lord intended for them to have only one companion in life, regardless of what happens. More appears below on the question.
As far as the opinions of friends are concerned, likely the widow will receive conflicting counsel on the question of remarriage. Jensen reports, “Some people tell me, ‘Oh, you’re young. You were only married thirteen years,’” as if that helps much” (p. 16). When it comes to making a decision on whether or not to remarry, certain biblical, personal, and practical questions come into focus. One force in play is obviously availability of potential partners. Most know that the opportunities for remarriage for a widow are noticeably fewer than for widowers. Peterson and Briley write, “The basic problem is the overwhelming plurality of widows over widowers. There are some 251,000 new widowers each year and nearly 600,000 widows” (p. 169).
Some read the writings of Paul selectively and conclude that he opposed remarriage for widows. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, he classified any teaching against marriage as a “doctrine of the devil” (1 Timothy 4:1-3). Further, to the Corinthians he wrote, “A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39). He could not more clearly sanction the right of a person with a deceased companion to select another partner in marriage. They may marry whom they wish. However, they should carefully seek the guidance of the Lord in the matter. Of course, they would begin by eliminating any candidate who is not “in the Lord,” not a believer.
Apostle Paul then offers the alternative of remaining single in the will of God. He says, “In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 7:40). Earlier in the letter, he reasons that singleness has its advantages. He explains, “I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided” (1 Corinthians 7:32-34).
Accordingly, those who contemplate marriage should be aware of the fact that “those who marry will face many troubles in this life” (28). That “trouble” can include a combination of several small items. Mirian Nye writes:
“If you expect perfection, you don’t really intend to remarry at all. You want to live with your selective memories of your first husband. If you expect to find a suitable man who has no annoying habits, no personal flaws, and no loyalty to his deceased wife, you must know you are too demanding. You are making sure that you don’t marry again” (Mirian Baker Nye, But I Never Thought He’d Die: Practical Help for Widows (Phhiladelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1978), p. 139).
The deciding factor, then, is the will of the Lord for the life of each person. Considering all the Bible says on the subject, Scripture shows it is the will of God for most to marry. In the very beginning the Lord declared, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Then He immediately provided Adam a suitable helper and instituted the family as the basic unit of Society. Yet, Paul recognized that some remain single in the will of God and render acceptable service to God throughout life. His conclusion, then, is that “each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him” (1 Corinthians 7:17).
Clearly, Paul presents a balanced message in comparing the single and the married life. As in his letter to the Corinthians, in his letter to the Romans he wants all to know that remarriage is permissible for the widow. To them he wrote:
“By law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage. So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man” (Romans 7:2-3).
In fact, the apostle encourages especially young widows to remarry. At the end of offering his reasons behind it, he writes simply, “So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander” (1 Timothy 5:14).
Certain practical matters enter into the decision of the widow considering marrying again. These include readiness for remarriage and giving adequate consideration to one’s children, especially younger ones.
Readiness for Remarriage
The issue of readiness for remarriage warns against making hasty decisions. For example, Convissor cautions, “However it is very important that we learn to stand alone before seeking another. Relationships formed by need collapse like a house of cards or grow malformed” (p. 140).
“The widow sees as never before that only when she is a whole person does she have enough to contribute to any marriage relationship. She sees that in marriage or out of marriage, she will be lonely unless she is taking definite steps toward finding herself, toward becoming the whole person she is meant to be” (p. 125).
With similar reasoning Davis writes, “I knew the cure for my loneliness was not finding another person to spend my life with, but in coming to a comfortableness with all that makes me who I am” (p. 135).
Brothers says, “I have discovered that as the months pass, I am less and less willing to give up the freedom I have—freedom that I never wanted, but, now that I have it, would find hard to relinquish. I have found there are advantages to the single life. And I am not alone in this discovery” (p. 144).
Peterson and Briley also warn against hasty remarriages for widows, but for slightly different reasons. They say, “If a woman begins her relationship with eligible males too soon, before the grief period is over, she will ruin her chances by her demeanor” (p. 169).
Jensen says simply, “I firmly believe being unmarried and happy is more to be desired than being unhappy and married.” (p. 92).
Brothers observes further, “Older widows seem even more set against remarriage than the younger women. They do not want to go through the process of adjusting to life with another individual, nor do they want to go through the agony of nursing another man through a terminal illness” (p. 146). She says, “A survey of 390 Chicago widows found that only 80 wanted to get married again. When asked why not, their answers were remarkably similar: ‘I’m free and independent’ was the refrain” (p. 147).
Giving adequate consideration to one’s children, especially younger ones, is of further concern to a widow considering remarriage. As an example, Wesley Teterud says, “The challenge of introducing a new father to children is great enough, but when the father is blending children of his own into the new relationship, the challenge becomes even greater” (Wesley M. Teterud, Caring for Widows: Your Church Can Make a Difference (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), p. 67).
Concerning younger children, Convissor says, “Our children may want a new dad but may be disturbed at seeing their mom physically affectionate with another man. They may be jealous of our absorption with someone else and the attention it takes from them” (p. 146).
As to adolescent children, some may feel that they must put the brakes on their developing life and now stay home to care for their widowed mother. Following her mother’s death, my daughter continues to live at home with me. However, in her case it was just the continuation of her life in the years before the loss. She had never married and seemed to enjoy life at home as she had from birth. I don’t think I have conducted myself in a way to cause her to feel she needs to remain at home to care for me. I have never prayed for anything for her or my son except the will of God for their lives.
Considering the question of how best to occupy one’s time following the death of a spouse is also an important matter. At the grave-side committal service to close a funeral, I generally say to the family, and especially to a widow, “You are wise to continue at least moderately busy in the days, weeks, and months to come.” However, Jensen says, “Everyone will tell you to keep busy. This is good advice, but how should you busy yourself?” (p. 17). Teterud responds with, “Useful activities will benefit the widow in fighting loneliness” (p. 39). These may include doing volunteer work or even seeking employment.
In the days immediately following the death of a spouse, Nye writes, “The funeral and mourning rituals are significant steps in the grief work” (p. 32). With similar sentiments Marhall says, “I found that the mechanics connected with death are actually helpful, though they may seem hard. In the very beginning one may feel that these practical activities are an intrusion into grief,” but the opposite proves to be the case (p. 51).
She continues, “For a time, during busy hours, one can forget the pain” (p. 51). Such duties include disposing “. . . of clothes that a loved person will never need again; to listen attentively to reading of a will[,] to write checks, to put one’s mind to business and insurance details[,] to acknowledge somehow the dozens of telephone calls and personal messages, the loving offering of food brought to one’s home, the funeral flowers, [and] the notes of sympathy” (p. 52). She concludes, “The truth is that the empty heart needs work for the hands to do” (p. 52).
However, Nye cautions, “But throwing yourself tirelessly into a paying job or volunteer work is no guarantee of emotional healing. As a matter of fact, illness may overtake the widow who pushes to keep busy” (p. 22). On the other hand she writes, “Drudgery can be a blessing. When widows wrote me to tell what helped them progress from disorganization toward organization, they stressed the value of having to earn a living or apply themselves to business matters” (p. 35).
In addition, then, to seeking diversion through some form of physical activity as discussed elsewhere in these articles, there are two other avenues of keeping busy in a meaningful way. As Teterud writes “Useful activities will benefit the widow in fighting loneliness” (p. 39). These may include doing volunteer work or even seeking employment.
Engaging in Volunteer Work
If the widow is sufficiently financially secure at the death of her husband, she may well consider spending some of her time weekly in volunteer service. What Peterson and Briley say is well-known. They write, “The church remains one of the best opportunities for widowers and widows to find a meaningful social group” (p. 121). More and more congregations schedule activities for their age group, including tours to places of interest.
The Bible offers examples of those whose volunteer work had a base in the church. Among the first to recognize the Baby Jesus as having come from heaven was Anna. She was an aged widow. Yet, despite the fact that she was eighty four years old, Luke says that, “She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying” (Luke 2:37). The evangelist designates her as a prophetess. However, since neither prophets nor prophetesses occupied official positions at the Temple, she must have served in a voluntary capacity. Central to her activity there was fasting and prayer.
Widows whose departed husbands have left them financially stable have the opportunity of advancing the kingdom of God through giving. Regrettably, experience teaches that it is the older members more than the younger ones in a congregation whose financial contributions provides the larger part of a church budget. This is not to suggest that the pastor depends on the rich to support the church. Paul took note of the fact that some gave in a church offering “beyond their ability” when at the time they themselves were experiencing “deep poverty” (2 Corinthians 8:2-3). As Jesus observed a widow behaving in a similar matter, He said to His students, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on” (Mark 12:43-44).
Loss of a feeling of self-esteem often follows the loss of one’s husband. After all, her life may have been so much a part of his work that when that is gone her anchor in life seems to have slipped away. One of the things which may help is a consideration of seeking employment. For some widows, of course, going to work becomes an economic necessity. In any case, Nye says that, if well chosen, “Work can provide you with ‘social identity and linkage with others,’ with self-respect, self-confidence, and increased stability” (p. 79).
However, some widows may find an opposite experience in seeking employment following a husband’s death. Peterson and Briley report such a case. They write:
“A few months after Frank’s death, Jean returned to work. “I was teaching a class at the time, and I broke down and cried in front of the group on more than one occasion. I worked about five months and found that I just couldn’t function. The added stresses of the job were just too much for me at the time” (p. 4).
Following the initial period of coping with grief, a major task for the widow is that of rebuilding a new life for herself. Such a simple thing as the passing of time helps some. However, the greater part of the needed adjustments requires a conscious and concerted effort on the part of the bereaved person. The rebuilding of the widow’s life focuses on such things as where to live, whether or not to seek a job, and the question of remarriage. The lines above have offered specific suggestions to assist her in each of these areas.