Widowed Too Young
By Richard D. Dobbins
When the funeral service is over, your pastoral work with a grieving spouse is just beginning. No matter how many years a person has been married, when a beloved spouse dies, his* first reaction is most likely to be, “Not now; not yet. There are so many things we still planned to do together.” The younger one is and the more suddenly this happens, the more difficult it is to get through the death of a mate.
While believers do not grieve the same way as those who “have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13), there is still a grieving process and an intense sense of aloneness when one loses a spouse. Believers are seldom more in need of pastoral care than during the first year after the loss of a spouse. During pastoral ministry with such people, look for appropriate opportunities to remind them that death is:
- The result of Adam’s sin (Romans 5:12).
- Man’s enemy, because of the pain and separation it brings (1 Corinthians 15:26).
- Something Jesus conquered for all humanity through His sinless life, vicarious death, and triumphant resurrection.
- Something over which believers do eventually triumphin the resurrection,but it is still normal and healthy for them to grieve the loss of a loved one (John 11:32–36, 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18).
For the believer, even though its sting at times seems unbearable, death is not a defeat of one’s faith. Rather, it is the gateway into an exciting new life. Death brings:
- An intensified consciousness (1 Corinthians 13:9–12).
- A “gain” and something “far better” than anything on this earth (Philippians 1:20–24).
- Far more than just being “absent from the body”; death means being “present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8).
The surviving mate’s grieving process is seldom completed in less than 6 months, and may take up to 2 years. If prolonged illness is the precipitating factor in a spouse’s death, the survivor has probably already experienced some amount of anticipatory grief and has begun formulating some responses to the obvious questions: “How can I go on alone? How will I manage household chores/finances/raising our children (if there are children in the home)/get through special holiday times alone?”
These are issues you may wish to raise during times of prayer and encouragement with the spouse who is facing life without his partner. Gently ask for God’s guidance in these specific areas from time to time as you pray together. Locate reliable (preferably Christian) professionals and support groups in your community who specialize in care for the bereaved. Help the surviving spouse determine what tasks must be addressed both before and after a mate’s death and offer to put them in touch with appropriate service providers. Reassure any spouse caring for a dying mate that it is permissible and necessary for his own spiritual, physical, and emotional health to periodically escape from the “sick room” and go on with his normal routine from time to time—even his favorite entertainment. If he tries to spend every waking moment with his sick spouse, he will have no energy reserve for later, when all of his energies are needed during the difficult days as his spouse draws closer to death.
Ministry to the spiritual needs of the surviving spouse should include helping him manage feelings of anger and guilt. The most sincere believer can still experience anger at God for not healing his spouse, anger over being left alone to face the future, or anger at unresolved marital or family issues—real or perceived—with his spouse.
Guilt may be rooted in missed opportunities in life or regrets over things real or imagined that were either done or left undone and now can never be made right. “Survivor guilt” stems from still being alive and healthy. This may come from the belief that the surviving spouse should have been more aggressive in seeking out medical care for his mate. Regardless of the source and whether the feelings are healthy or unhealthy, anger and guilt need to be surfaced and forgiveness needs to be experienced.
For the believer, one of the most critical spiritual aspects of a mate’s death is explaining to himself the “why” of this tragedy. Three kinds of “untimely” deaths require special attention and care on behalf of the surviving spouse, children, and other family members:
- Premature death—a person struck down in childhood, youth, or “the prime of life.” We can accept that aged family members are close to death. When death comes to someone considered “too young to die,” however, it seems tragic. It’s natural for children to bury their parents sooner or later. It is not natural for parents to bury their children.
- Unexpected death due to an undiagnosed/unrecognized health problem such as a bad heart or due to a traffic accident.
- Calamitous deathnot only unexpected, but very violentincluding an act of nature such as a flash flood, earthquake, or tornado. (When addressing the issue of death from an act of nature, emphasize that these are acts of nature behaving within God-given limits, not acts of Godas news reporters often describe them.) Calamitous death also includes airplane crashes, drive-by shootings, hate crimes, and mass killings. The survivors of a person who dies in circumstances such as these will experience grief for many months. Among the worst parts of such tragedies are the fact families may have no physical body to bury and thus begin to put closure on that person’s lifeand/or no supportive ministry to help them through the dark weeks and months.
When these kinds of tragedies strike, the first question believers and nonbelievers alike generally ask is, “Why my husband/wife? He or she did not deserve to die.” The answer to this question is what the survivor must live with. It is one of the most important questions any of us will ever ask because it brings us face to face with our theodicy of death and tragedy—our interpretation of the meaning of death. That’s why we must give grieving survivors an adequate theodicy to help them through this experience.
Here are five common ways people explain death and give meaning to their tragedies. Not all are spiritually and emotionally healthy, but all are common. One and two are negative responses; three and four are superficial and deny what has really happened; and five can be a spiritually and emotionally healthy way of explaining this kind of loss to oneself.
- Blaming or questioning the mercy of God. “He doesn’t really care for us or He wouldn’t have allowed that to happen.”
- Viewing the tragedy as a punishment for the wrongdoing of the survivor(s). “If only I had….” “If only I hadn’t….” These sentence stems probably have as many endings as there are widows and widowers.
- Seeing the suffering and loss as primarily a state of mind, which is influenced by how one defines the situation. This is an attempt to anesthetize oneself so that the pain doesn’t have to be felt or any explanation found. This is not helpful or healthy.
- Regarding the death as fatalistic, coincidental, or solely in cause-and-effect terms. “He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.” “Her genetic inheritance left no room for anything else.” This response is inadequate because the death of a spouse should have some meaning for the survivor. And the meaning should be positive.
- Assuming this tragic loss is intended to somehow serve a good and useful purpose in God’s overall plan for His creation. “I can’t explain why a loving God would allow this to happen. Even so, I still believe the truth of His Word when I read that, ‘all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose’ ” (Romans 8:28).
Your theology may not mesh with what the person sees as the “good” in what has happened. You may find it impossible to believe as the survivor does that a loving God would take a young husband or wife in the prime of life, leaving behind a grieving spouse and children, to keep them close to Him so they can eventually be reunited with the loved one in heaven. Remember, it is not your job to convert the grieving person to your theology. Your task is to help him find a theological meaning within the framework of his belief system that comforts him. And such ideas of eventual reunion in heaven will often bring that kind of comfort to people.
When you help the bereaved arrive at a “why” they can live with, more of their energies are freed to cope with the “how” of managing their tragedy: how they will manage financially, how they will see that the children are properly cared for, how they will begin to build a life that takes them into the future God has planned for them. Assure them that even though their future is going to be very different from what they had once planned, it will still be good when it is placed in God’s hands.
Extend your post-funeral care of the spouse and children to a minimum of 3 to 6 months. Few other forms of ministry hold more promise for helping people and building strong church loyalties than skilled and compassionate care for the dying and their survivors.
Richard D. Dobbins, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and founder of EMERGE Ministries, Akron, Ohio.