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Not Without Hope

A widow's reflections on facing the death of a spouse

On July 6, 2003, Jane Randall Hess Clark, my wife of 46 years, died of a brain tumor, eleven months after diagnosis. She received the best medical treatment and home care therapies available. We had a Christ-honoring memorial service, planned by her in detail, that was attended by many of her large family, and conducted by her nephew.

I thus entered the world of widowerhood. I felt a profound loss, with many adjustments following those eleven months of intensive care-giving. But I didn’t feel the kind of grief I was told was “normal.” 

Tears came mainly at seeing the compassion in my three young granddaughters and sensing their great loss. Their brother, Tobias—which means “God is good”—was born less than a month before Jane died and knew his Nana only by being held by her in her last days. 

Was there something wrong with me that I did not go deeper into depression? 

Facing Jane’s death as a family

Some suggested my muted reactions were because I had eleven months to prepare. That didn’t fit, since from the day of the diagnosis, Jane and I, and even our children, had placed the situation in the hands of the Lord and faced what the statistics told us was coming. 

This includes the simple idea of being honest about the reality of death. Death is a taboo in our culture, and when someone says “I am going to die from this disease,” the usual response is “don’t talk that way, you are going to recover.” That kind of response invalidates the suffering person’s experience, and makes the loss all the more crushing for the survivors. Christian clichés are often not much better. Acknowledging the reality of what was going on helped our family deal with Jane’s death. Christians should be the ultimate realists.

Jane’s “life verse,” included as part of her signature on every birthday card and note she sent, was from Nahum 1:7: “The Lord is good. When trouble comes, he is a strong refuge. And he knows everyone who trusts in him” (NLT). Her faith was strong and her outlook courageous—and contagious.

As a family we also claimed Paul’s assurance: “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13 TNIV). It’s not that we don’t miss her. There are moments when we do grieve but with hope, such as when we long to tell her about her grandchildren’s latest accomplishments. 

Facing Jane’s death alone

There is also a profound personal loss. Those who have experienced long, happy marriages know that there really are times when you know what the other person is thinking; and you can recognize each others’ needs without asking. It is, I think, encompassed within Genesis 2:24: “and the two shall become one flesh.” That is not replaced by any other relationship. 

As I look back over these three years since Jane died, however, I have concluded that two factors helped prepared me to be a widower—as much as one can be prepared for the loss of their spouse.

First, from my earliest days I was taught that God so loved me that he gave his only son so that if I believed in Him I would have eternal life (John 3:16); that the Lord is my Shepherd, and that he would see me through the valley of death (Psalm 23); that God does care for me (1 Pet. 5:7); and, yes, that the Lord is my refuge in times of trial if I trust in Him (Nahum 1:7). Thus, in facing Jane’s illness, we both knew where she was going; that it is a far better place; and that someday, in the Lord’s time, we will be reunited.

Second, I was also prepared in practical ways to manage without my wife after 46 years of not having to “go it alone.” Jane and I did not have a “traditional marriage” for our generation. We shared many of the household tasks including cooking, dish washing, laundry, and cleaning—everything except sewing: you don’t learn to sew when you are married to someone who likes doing it and is the best seamstress in town. 

But we also recognized each other’s particular gifts and experience. We deferred to each other and made decisions together. If we couldn’t agree at first, we waited. Neither one of us claimed or was given authority over the other. The Bible calls for this in Ephesians 5:21—“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (TNIV). 

In other words, we lived and experienced an egalitarian marriage, though we didn’t know the term and didn’t call it that. In fact Jane would not have considered herself an egalitarian, particularly in areas involving a woman’s role in the church, one place where we had our disagreements. Just like “free lunches” there is no such thing as an idyllic marriage, whether egalitarian or traditional, but overall it worked! 

How mutuality in marriage can help prepare men for widowerhood

My answer for how the Church should deal with widowers is preparing men for that possibility, rather than focusing on how to handle it after it happens. That’s pretty logical—after all, the death of a spouse is one of the most traumatic events in life. But so are things like marriage, the birth of a child, choosing a career, and retirement, and most of us plan for those (or should). 

Aside from common sense and my own observations, several studies have backed up this conclusion, including one that should be examined by church leaders and anyone dealing with widows and widowers. 

Two authorities on aging, Deborah Carr and Rebecca Utz, have published a study on “Late-Life Widow Hood in the United States: New Directions in Research and Theory.” A paragraph on the first page reads:

"When one’s spouse dies, the survivor must adjust psychologically to the loss of their closest confidante, and must manage the daily decisions and responsibilities that were once shared by both spouses.…The adjustments required by widowed spouses may be particularly difficult in societies which maintain a rigid gender-based allocation of social roles; men and women may have little experience in fulfilling the instrumental and expressive roles previously performed by their spouses. (my emphasis; Aging International vol. 27, no. 1 [Winter 2001–02]: pp. 65–88; available online at http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~carrds/publications/carr_utz_2002.pdf)"

I find that their study offers scholarly support for having an egalitarian marriage. Men, this means learning how to do a lot more than just cooking and doing laundry. It’s the big stuff as well. And, if you should go first, it means making sure your wife knows how to do what you do. 

At least a year before reaching 65, Jane suggested that we retire, build a home in Vermont next to our daughter Sarah, and move there. While open to the idea, I was cold (no Vermont pun intended) to it happening so soon. But a series of events plus a good bit of prayer and financial figuring led me to accept the idea. Besides, Jane really had better judgment on things like that than I did. Within a year of moving I had a flare-up of ulcerative colitis and was also diagnosed with prostate cancer—these combined health issues would have severely diminished my law practice if I had still been in New Jersey.

Listening, deferring, and ultimately agreeing with a wiser spouse led to seven years together in this lovely setting. After Jane’s death, this decision also put me next door to my daughter, son-in-law, and four grandchildren, near her caring in-laws, and in a Bible-centered egalitarian church. What if we had adhered to a “rigid gender-based allocation of social roles,” or had practiced a hierarchal approach to marriage and Jane had submitted to my initial response?

A former pastor of ours once stated that if husband and wife cannot agree on something, “someone has to make the final decision, and that is the husband.” My reply then, as now, is that marriage is not like an Army where there has to be a general. Rather, marriage is two equal parties who often must enter into what lawyers call a “settlement conference.” When we hear the term “Mediator” used as one of the attributes of the Holy Spirit, we think primarily of His role in our prayer life. He can also be a mediator in our family settlement conferences.

The reason for having that kind of marriage is biblical (see, for example, Eph. 5:21). The result of such a marriage is measurable in many aspects, not the least being the beneficial results to the surviving spouse.

How churches can help prepare men for widowerhood

The Carr and Utz study also suggests an implicit question for local churches. In our society, the modern nuclear family is socially and economically autonomous. Is your local church part of the “nuclear family” or at least one of the “few alternative sources of social, emotional or instrumental support” (before the spouse dies, not just after)? 

Regarding religious and spiritual undergirding, Carr and Utz include research that supports what Christians should already know—that our beliefs make a difference in our ability to cope with loss. They conclude that “[b]y identifying the psychological resources that ease the widowhood process, practitioners can target interventions toward individuals who appear to lack such resources” (pg. 83).

This suggests to me that churches should identify the men and women who lack religious beliefs and do something about it before they face the death of their spouse. Isn’t strengthening these beliefs something churches are supposed to be doing anyway?

There are 1.5 million older women and 1 million older men in the United States, according to a study called “A Profile of Older Americans: 2003” prepared by the Administration on Aging, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Look around your congregation. Do you see ten senior men for every fifteen senior women? Or, forget the “senior” part and look again. If religious/spiritual beliefs are important for coping with widowerhood, where are the younger men in your church getting the tools to cope?

Are all those women sitting by themselves or with other women really unmarried? I’ve been in my local church for almost three years and am just finding out that some women I assumed were widowed or divorced are actually rather happily married. Why don’t their husbands come to church? 

Do we wait until men lose their spouses to attempt to minister to them? Get them involved now and provide the undergirding the experts on aging cite as tools for coping. This involves both leading them to accept Christ as Savior, and providing the social network also documented as a factor of adjustment to widowerhood. 

Several widows over the years have expressed concern to me that their deceased husbands had not been believers in Christ. By reaching out to men in the community and spreading the Gospel, local churches are also vital to the spiritual well-being of many women who will survive their spouses.

I’m no expert, but it seems to me that if the local church offers sound, undiluted teaching from the Word of God, especially the Good News of Jesus Christ, people will come, including men. It doesn’t take special programs, contemporary music, or “men’s” events, but it very well may take an invitation from a neighbor or friend. A great idea for men who are in a church—invite other men to join the fellowship. 

Words of advice for widowers

It is quite possible that the social contacts you had as husband and wife with other couples will end, perhaps gradually. For some reason that just seems to happen. The need for forming new social contacts is another reason men and women need to be part of a caring local church. If you are not in one, find one, and get involved.

Using your gifts is one great way to get involved. I believe the Holy Spirit endows each of us with gifts, but also that these gifts may change throughout the course of our lives. For example, I’ve always been interested in photography, but that hobby lay dormant as we raised our family and sent four kids to college. Now, during retirement in the beautiful Vermont mountains, opportunities reappear. 

Some of my photo backgrounds (including a few from the 1940s) are used in the PowerPoint presentations that accompany our church service. But my church would not have known about my photography interest if I had not volunteered. To the widower I say, let the church know what you can do; to the local church I say, find a way the widower can help.

Words of advice for husbands

Husbands, these pragmatic reasons for establishing an egalitarian marriage and going to church can be key factors in your adjustment to widowerhood if that should ever become your status. 

I did not intend this article to advocate for egalitarian marriage. Indeed, I had not previously considered having had such a marriage. But in the process of writing, I have recognized that what I had experienced had in fact been egalitarian, and that partnership was essential in preparing me for my unexpected widowerhood status. 

So I write, not in the nature of an advocate, but with the hope that husbands may consider both the biblical foundation for mutuality in marriage and the practical results of such a marriage.

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