I recently had the opportunity to talk with my next door neighbor Marjorie Thompson about her experience as a widow and James 1:27. For me this was a very hands on experience in loving your neighbor as yourself and what that looks like when looking at the plight of the widow specifically.
OTS: How long has it been since John’s death? How old was he?
Marjorie Thompson: It has been nearly 21 months since my beloved John passed from this earth. He was 67 years old.
OTS: What has helped you the most in your time without your husband?
MT: Three things have particularly helped me to cope with his unexpected passing:
I made a decision early on to allow myself to grieve wherever, whenever, and with whomever I was. This really helped me to move through the process rather than expending energy suppressing it. I learned soon enough that there are no shortcuts through grief. The pain of loss just has to be endured, expressed, and allowed its own time.
I kept a grief journal through the first year, and continued to make entries well into the second year although less frequently. This gave me a way to put words to my feelings, questions, doubts, prayers, insights, and learnings. Sometimes I wrote down my internal dialogues with God or with John. I also recorded several very vivid dreams of John’s presence with me. It was a great help to track my thoughts, feelings, and experiences in this journal, and it is a gift to have that record of my journey through grief.
I very intentionally sought support from family and friends. Losing a spouse of 33 years, especially when we had no children, is an experience of profound loneliness and isolation. I knew I needed regular contact with friends in the Nashville area, which meant quite a lot of travel back and forth into town. My older brother and his wife committed to call me every Sunday for support, which was an immense help. I also have a friend in town (Episcopal priest) who lost his wife 5 days before John died. He and John had been in the same men’s group for years. He and I met regularly to share our experience of grieving and to support each other. We shared a lot of spiritual practices and perspectives with each other.
OTS: What has the response been from those around you after your husbands death?
MT: It has been interesting and instructive to observe how people around me have responded after John’s death. Initially I had many cards and numerous calls. Colleagues gathered more food for me than I could eat. There was a great outpouring of sympathy, and assurance that I was not alone. However, relatively few people followed up with further contact after the first month or so. A few friends have been consistently supportive. Some who I would have expected to reach out to me in my loss never did. Others who I would not have thought of as close friends became remarkably supportive. Two of my neighbors have been very supportive over time. Others have not reached out to me in ways I would have hoped for. One of the hardest times of day for new widows/widowers is the supper hour. Eating meals alone when you are accustomed to companionship and conversation is a very painful adjustment. People are naturally busy with their own lives, but I also suspect some couples are uncomfortable with those who have suffered the loss of a spouse.
OTS: Has there been a support system which you have relied on?
MT:I am fortunate to be part of a small group of women—four of us, who began as colleagues in ministry, although all but myself are now retired. We have been meeting together monthly for about 9 years to share our personal journeys and reflect on scripture and spiritual poetry. These three women have been my mainstay of support through this season of loss. They are capable of listening deeply, without trying to fix my pain. They have been available to help me with various practical needs and counsel as well as to ask deep questions of my soul. Their encouragement and spiritual wisdom has helped to sustain me.
I also have a dear colleague in pastoral ministry who was a close friend of John’s. After John’s death, he asked to have lunch with me monthly just as he used to with John. His friendship and understanding have been a regular source of sustenance for my heart and soul as well.
OTS: What message or advice would you have for others who are widowed?
Every person’s experience of loss and grief is different; the circumstances of loss are different and can elicit different feelings; the timing will be different for each person; there is no “right or wrong way” to grieve. But for myself, I found it so important to allow the grief to come, to let the feelings flow, as hard as that can be to do. I believe it has enabled me to move through the grieving process in a fairly healthy way (not that I am “over it”). I would recommend this as a path through the worst agonies of grief.
I cannot imagine coming through as far as I have without faith in God and trust in a much larger Life that encompasses our own small lives. To the newly bereaved I would say: Do everything in your power to cultivate faith in the grace and mercy of God, even if your experience of loss has shaken the foundations of your belief and disrupted your trust in God’s goodness. Read the stories of others’ struggles through grief to a deeper faith. Take your pain and fear and anger and loneliness to God, even if you must shake your fist at heaven and lament like the psalmist. Feel what you feel, but take it all into your relationship with God, allowing the Holy Spirit to slowly reshape and instruct your human spirit. What I am learning is that if you are willing to stay open to God with your suffering, it will begin to transform into something life-giving. Let your heart break open to new vision and empathy for others who suffer. Open the eyes of your heart to the compassionate suffering of Christ with us in this world.
At a practical level, I would also urge the newly bereaved to stay connected to others in community: through church; by asking family and friends to keep you company or give you help with practical things; perhaps if you have time and energy, by finding a volunteer activity that helps others in need. And keep yourself healthy with regular exercise and eating patterns. Eating by your self can be a real chore and grief depresses appetite, so this takes intentional self-care. Exercise, especially walking in the natural world, can help lift depression and increase your energy. It is healing in itself.
OTS: Is there any practical advice that you would give to younger people trying to follow James 1:27?
I would say, for one, that care should be considered for widowers as well as widows and orphans. In Jesus’ day, widows had no viable means of support without husbands to care for them. They were often left destitute after a husband’s death, with no way to feed and clothe their children. This is why we read so many injunctions throughout the Bible for God’s people to care for widows and orphans! In our day, single mothers often face great financial challenges as well, but not all widows are left destitute.
Everyone who loses a beloved spouse, especially when the loss comes prematurely or unexpectedly, will suffer emotional devastation for some period of time. You, as a young person, are not immune from loss and grief, although usually these experiences come later in life. You can, however, learn more about the nature of grief, and learn empathy for others who experience it. Just connecting with those who suffer the direct impact of family losses is important—not only because widows, widowers, and children who have lost parents will appreciate new connections and relationships, but because young persons reaching out in this way will find new learning and life experience as well. The blessings always go both ways. Intergenerational connections and the sharing of personal stories build not just knowledge but wisdom!