I am part of the fastest growing demographic in the United States. We are targeted by new-home builders and surveyed by designers. We are a lucrative niche for health and beauty products, and financial planners invite us to dinners. It's no wonder the marketers are after us: 800,000 join our ranks every year.
Who are we? We are the invisible among youthe widows.
Studies show that widows lose 75 percent of their friendship network when they lose a spouse. Sixty percent of us experience serious health issues in that first year. One third of us meet the criteria for clinical depression in the first month after our spouse's death, and half of us remain clinically depressed a year later. Most experience financial decline. One pastor described us by saying we move from the front row of the church to the back, and then out the door. We move from serving and singing in choir to solitude and silent sobbing, and then on to find a place where we belong.
With my husband Bob's exit to heaven, my daily life has changed: my calendar, my checkbook, the thermostat, the contents of my refrigerator, and even the look in my children's eyes when they step through the door on holidays. My living space is more cluttered. I seldom use makeup. I am now familiar with the smell of car oil as I sit in Lube Right waiting for an oil change. There are other changes so private and personal they cannot be shared. Loneliness and solitude are not descriptive enough of the space that becomes the cocoon of the widow.
Had I been faced with these facts five years ago, I would have stated, "It can't be so! In the community of believers, we support each other." But I look back on my own responses to women who had become widows and realize how little I understood, how little I empathized, how seldom I walked beside them.
Yet because of our shared experience, we have an incredibly strong bond that links us to each other. We discover we are vulnerable as we have never been before. I learned this one evening as I walked through the city, hunched over into the wind with my hood up on my long black coat. In my haste to the train station, I passed only two other people as I hurried over the dark waters of the Chicago River. I've never done this before in my life, I thought. Widows experience so many firsts that we stop counting.
Life with Bob
At 19 years of age, I embarked on my journey with Bob that lasted 41 years, 2 months, and 21 days. It began soon after the first day of my college career.
"May I walk with you?" The soft hazel eyes of a gentleman looked down into mine. It was a warm September afternoon on the campus of Indiana University. Singing Hoosiers rehearsal was over and the baritone soloist was asking to walk with me! Sixteen months later, this 18-year-old freshman who had never been to Chicago or heard of Moody Bible Institute married a man who knew his life calling was to serve God through Moody Broadcasting.
Together we finished degrees, moved from the farm to the city, had children, adopted children, sang in church choirs, offered hospitality, and traveled to 40 countries. I became an educatora teacher and counselor in public high schoolsa working mom. As Bob followed his calling, he expanded the mbi network to 36 owned and operated stations. He successfully negotiated with the Federal Communications Commission and began a satellite ministry that at times has served 600 affiliates. We parented our children to adulthood, unquestionably the greatest challenge of our marriage. We enjoyed the marriages of threeincluding two receptions in our own yard. No smile was broader on either Bob's or my face than while watching our three incredibly handsome African American grandsons grow up.
In an exceedingly productive season of his life, while serving as vice president of Moody Broadcasting, treasurer of the National Religious Broadcasters, and a board member for HCJB (Heralding Christ Jesus' Blessings, an international broadcasting group), Bob fell. The inconvenience and pain of a dislocated shoulder began the journey from doctors to disease, all the while sorting through our theology, to face the bleak reality: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, an untreatable, fatal disease, had gripped Bob's body.
Less than three years after that fall, Bob entered heaven willingly; I gave him up with more than reluctance. Our oneness was now ripped in two. My inarguably better half was gone and the gaping wound created by his exit had every nerve ending screamingeven though I was supposed to be numb.
God's Special Care
While every widow's story is different, we all share the understanding of a loss that is final beyond description. Watching the gardener gently work the grass seed into the fresh dirt on my husband's grave set me apart forever from the life I once had.
Widows gain a fresh perspective on Scripture. In 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, I am reminded that no one can comfort a widow like another widow. In turn, we are moved deeply when we see another woman enter this experience, and we want to comfort her in her grief. With desperation we study the 103 Scripture passages referencing widows. And we find we are not invisible to God. With gratitude we discover that we are not only close to God's heart, but that he measures others by how they treat us (James 1:27). This is both a comforting and sobering insight. Widows, orphans, prisonersthe voicelessGod chooses to speak for us.
He instructs that our needs be met through the church's tithes if necessary (Deut. 14:29; 26:12; Acts 6:1-4). He instructs that in our vulnerability we be given legal rights (Isa. 1:17). He commends one widow for her sacrificial giving (Mark 12:42-44). He tells our story in his Word: the widow at Zarephath and her generosity (1 Kings 17:9), the widow with her pot of oil, faith, and obedience (2 Kings 4:1).
As I studied Scripture on widows, these themes emerged:
To the widow: Be generous regardless of the quantity of your possessions; no one's "stuff" is their own anyway. Be filled with faith: you can't help but be when you see how special you are to your Creator and new Husband.
To the church: The significance of your church is not in its numbers, but that its priorities match God's. The character of your leaders is not measured by their popularity or power, but by their attention and care for the powerless and voiceless among them.
Taking care of widows can be complex for several reasons. Churches today are varied in size and resources, and the experiences and needs of widows also vary widely. There is no model of service for all to follow, though the early church clearly made it a priority by appointing church leaders to oversee the care of widows (Acts 6:1-7). I would also recommend that leadership groups related to widows' ministry have a leading member who is a widow. Without such a leader, churches' decisions on how to serve us often miss the mark.
While the needs for financial support and help with our homes' upkeep are common, the need for connection is most pressing. Often, personal connections with the church are broken upon becoming a widow. This time is the widow's most painful, lonely, and vulnerable part of her journey, a time when she needs believing friends near her.
I was Changed
As a widow, I have learned that we all change. And much of the change is good. We become faith-filled because we cannot face the day any other way. We become strong because we have no other choice. We are compassionate because our heart has been broken. As I listen to other widows' stories, I am awestruck by what they have learned and accomplished.
One of my own turning points occurred in Africa. Following in Bob's footsteps, I traveled to a place I had previously been unable to visit. I was connecting with believers whom Bob had assisted in broadcasting. Prior to my trip, I received an e-mail asking me to speak to widows' groups there. Of course I would. This would be a way for me to give as Bob had.
The result: I spoke to seven groups of widows, ranging from 20 to 200 listeners each. At one church service, the men were the predominant note-takers. I spoke to one assembly of five churches, and I delivered my message with five pastors sitting behind me in large, impressive chairs. After listening intently to my teaching, one pastor issued a pronouncement: "It is good."
I can only say, simply, that I was changed. I remembered Bob encouraging me to accept my first speaking engagement after my first book was published. I was hesitant. He said, "Honey, they want to hear the person behind the book." So I reluctantly went. This was different. A different woman emerged in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. With my Bible open before hungry learners, I was energized and embraced the opportunity.
A second turning point came in the Dominican Republic. I was treasuring a week of rest and relaxation after four of the hardest years of my life. It was my first trip alone. While I had expected to rest and read, I found myself signing up for any and all activities: snorkeling, horseback riding, and learning to sail a catamaran. Being the only single woman to sign up for solo sailing lessons, my instructor eyed me with little enthusiasm and told me where to plant myself on the canvas. My eager attitude was soon deflated. "You can't learn this. I'll take you for a ride, and we'll go back."
Wrong, I thought.
On my fourth lesson (and after my requested change of instructors), my new instructor said those delightful words: "You can dump me now." I was on my own.
There are no words to describe being alone on that canvas, gripping the rudder, feeling the wind at my back, and racing out into the Atlantic. "Honey, can you see me?" I shouted to the sky. It was as if he answered, "You'll do this and more, Sweetheart, and I'm not surprised."
Back home, after I described my adventure to my family, my grandson asked, "Nana, weren't you afraid?"
"No," was my definite answer. "If I failed and drowned, I'd see God and Grandpa. If I succeeded, I'd have sailed a catamaransolo. Nana has nothing to lose."
Yes, we have changed. Widows believe Romans 8:28 with a new tenacity. We have new and relevant gifts to offer, not in spite of, but rather because of our loss. We are bold because we have already faced death in a part of ourselves. We laugh at things many people fear and count blessings among the mundane events of an ordinary day. Invisible? Let's change that. Welcoming widows reflects the heart of God.
Miriam Neff is the author of several books and the founder of Widowconnection.com.
Copyright © 2008 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Miriam Neff also wrote about what to say and what not to say to widows.
Rob Moll wrote about taking care of widows in Liveblog.
Other articles on dealing with death are in our special section.
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