Don Moore is a retired executive director of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. He has been widowed twice. Shirley died in 1993 and Nita passed in 2018.
My first wife of 39 years died on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 1993. Reality hit very soon when the children and I had to decide what would happen on Thanksgiving. Typically, her memorial service would have been on the third day following her departure, which would have been on Thanksgiving. Of course, that was not to be. It was agreed that, even though she was the one who always pulled it together, we needed to go ahead and have a Thanksgiving Dinner (lunch). We did that, but I am not sure any of us remember anything that happened that day. How deep and how long “numbness” follows a death none of us can predict, but it is a reality.
My simple advice for those journeying through holidays is to make whatever arrangement is necessary to not spend those days alone. The tendency to self-pity and morbid thinking can be very powerful. Stay active and be involved with others.
Even when we have had months or years to prepare for the departure of a loved one, there are factors that manifest themselves that surprise us. I learned quickly that my wife was the “Play Maker,” at our house. She invited the children over, prepared the meals, babysat the grandchildren, observed special occasions, and made Christmas happen. It was not interpreted as neglect or a put-down by the children, but there were just not many reasons for the children and grandchildren to come around that much. That was a real surprise and significant loss. No one was at fault. I was still employed and had to carry on duties there as well as extra duties at home, so I could not take my wife’s place or carry on her role. Many good things stopped happening at my house.
The hardest part of the day, following the loss of my wife/wives was coming home. It is indelibly impressed on my mind the first time I opened the kitchen door and there were no sounds, no smells of cooking food, no greeting. Emptiness in the room brought emptiness to my heart. I said, “so this is the way it is, and it will never be any different. It will be like this for the rest of my life.” There were no tears, just a hollowness about how I would go on existing in isolation and solitude. Closely akin to that is the frequent urge to travel, take in entertainment events, or just see the landscape, but there is the question of “what would it mean to you when there is no one to share it with?” So, in a while the thought goes away until something prompts it again. The widow or widower who can’t find meaningful engagement alone faces a bleak future. Ministry, reading, hobbies, friendships, writing or some positive activity must be found to occupy your thoughts and your time.
Routine is generally thought of as boring. I have found that a routine is vital to mental health. Standing in the middle of the house not knowing where I was going, what I was doing, or what needed to be done, I resolved never to be in that state again. My day and my days will normally include four things. (1) Scripture reading and reflection, prayer, meditation, and devotional reading. Some heavy reading. LUNCH. (2) Practical activities such as emptying the dishwasher, doing laundry, buying groceries, paying bills or cleaning house. (3) Physical exercises for around one hour. Recumbent bike, treadmill, hand-cycle as in rehab, weightlifting within the range of comfort and other exercises. The goal of this is both physically and emotionally therapeutic. (4) Diversion. The day is finished with something that does not tax the body or brain such as light reading, news reports, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, a movie, or a fun activity with friends.
Meals are a challenge for a widow or widower. Cooking can be fun and sharing recipes can be interesting, but most recipes are for at least four people. Leftovers do not really turn most people on. Eating out alone is really not very enticing. MEALS ARE A PAIN. The default position is the frozen food section at the grocery store. We tend to get in a rut and develop patterns that are not really healthy. If you are able to have one or two people that can share in that predicament, then you can help each other with meals shared or meals eaten out in a public place.
The widow or widower cannot expect life to come to them. Your mate may have been the creative one and you simply responded to what they wanted to do. You did nearly everything together. Your identity and your activity included someone else. Who are you without them? That can be a troubling question. A joy was multiplied a sorrow was halved. If you wait for life to come to you with its offering of sympathy, engagement and excitement you are in for disappointment. You must be assertive, imaginative, even aggressive in moving beyond where you are to a more meaningful range of activities and relationships that are fulfilling. You must not withdraw to a safe place of ease and comfort. You will have to push yourself to accept challenges and to create opportunities that are not “typically you.” As you gain confidence and extend your circle of friendships you will find life becoming more normal and bearable.
Activities within the life of a warm church fellowship are the biggest assets any widow or widower can have. When it comes to a support group, there is no better place to look than to your church, if you have been a responsible member yourself. Friendships, service opportunities, mission ministries, social functions, and things beyond regular worship services minister to the grieving. Show up!
The Apostle Paul was apparently unmarried when he suggested that a single person can devote more time to the Lord and that it might be more desirable to be single. Few of us would agree with him on that, but the truth is that this season of life may provide more time for the cultivation and development of our spiritual life than when we are preoccupied with family matters.
Looking back is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, we can dwell on what we have lost and be saddened, depressed, angry or bitter. On the other hand, we can reflect on all the joys and blessings we enjoyed with our loved one and praise the Lord. We deserved none of those blessings. In either case we need to be careful that we not make the good look better than it really was or the bad look worse than it really was. The Biblical injunction, “In everything give thanks,” (I Thess. 5:18) is the safest route to take. Rather than grieve over it ending, be grateful that it happened.
So much of life is lived with “give and take” relationships. There can be a selfish dimension to nearly everything we do for others or they do for us. Good deeds are expected and are often repaid with good deeds. That is the way of human interaction. Often, the circumstances that led to the passing of our loved one called for us to put forth heroic efforts with no prospect of anything in return. When the less your loved one can do for you finds you loving them the more, you have to know that God’s kind of love (agape) is being manifest in you. By nature that will never happen. By your New Nature it can, “…. because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Romans 5:5 (ESV)