Widows and Widowers​—What Do They Need? How Can You Help?

In the dimly lit kitchen of her tiny apartment, Jeanne mechanically sets the table. After all, she must eat something. Suddenly, her eyes fix on the two plates in front of her . . . and she bursts into tears. Out of habit, she has set the table for two! It has been two years since her dear husband passed away.

FOR those who have not had the experience, it is impossible to understand the depth of the pain caused by the loss of a mate. In fact, the human mind only gradually accepts the terrible reality. Beryl, 72, could not accept the sudden death of her husband. “It felt unreal,” she says. “I could not believe that he was not going to walk through the door again.”

Following an amputation, individuals sometimes “feel” their lost limb. In a similar way, grief-stricken mates sometimes “see” their beloved one in a crowd or catch themselves making a casual comment to someone who is not there anymore!

Friends and family often do not know how to react in the face of such suffering. Do you know someone who has experienced the death of a mate? How, then, can you provide support? What should you know in order to help widows and widowers work through their grief? How can you help the bereaved gradually to regain a taste for life?

Things to Avoid

Friends and family might be distressed by the suffering of their loved one and with good intentions try to limit the duration of the grieving process. However, one researcher who  conducted a survey of 700 widows and widowers wrote: “There is no ‘right’ length of time to grieve.” Therefore, instead of trying to stem the flow of tears, allow time for the surviving spouse to express his or her grief.​—Genesis 37:34, 35; Job 10:1.

While it might be appropriate for you to help with formalities related to the funeral arrangements, do not assume that you must take complete control of all matters that have to do with the funeral. Paul, a 49-year-old widower, says: “I think it was nice that those who offered help in a real and practical way still allowed me to retain control of the arrangements. It meant a lot to me to have everything go well at my wife’s memorial service. I felt that it was the last thing I could do to honor her.”

Of course, some help is no doubt appreciated. Eileen, a 68-year-old widow, says: “Arranging the funeral and sorting out the paperwork was hard, since I could not think straight. Fortunately, my son and daughter-in-law really helped me.”

Also, do not be afraid to talk about the dead loved one. Beryl, mentioned earlier, says: “My friends were extremely supportive. However, I did find that many avoided speaking about my husband, John. It was as if he had never existed, and I found that a bit hurtful.” In time, widows and widowers may wish to speak openly about their mate. Do you remember a kind gesture or an amusing story involving the deceased one? Then, offer to tell it to the surviving mate; do not allow fear to hold you back. If you sense that your comment would be welcome, say what you appreciated about him or what you miss about her. This may help grieving mates to appreciate that their grief is shared.​—Romans 12:15.

When offering your support, avoid overwhelming the grieving one with advice. Refrain from pressuring the bereaved mate to  make decisions too quickly. * Instead, use discernment and ask yourself, ‘What positive steps can I take to help a friend or a relative through one of the most difficult transitions in life?’

What You Can Do

In the days following the immediate bereavement, a surviving spouse will likely welcome practical help. Could you prepare meals, accommodate visiting relatives, or keep the grieving one company?

You also need to recognize that men and women may deal with grief and loneliness differently. For example, in some parts of the world, more than half of widowers remarry within 18 months following the death of a spouse​—something that is rarely the case among widows. What accounts for the difference?

Contrary to popular belief, men do not always remarry simply to satisfy their physical or sexual needs. It is, in fact, the male tendency to confide solely in a mate that may plunge a man into profound solitude following her death. Widows, on the other hand, are often more capable of finding emotional support, even though they sometimes are forgotten by the husband’s friends. That tendency on the part of widowers partly explains why many see remarriage as the only way out of their loneliness​—despite the risk of becoming involved in a new relationship too quickly. Widows may thus be better equipped to handle the pangs of loneliness.

Whether your friend or relative is a man or a woman, what can you do to lighten the burden of loneliness? Helen, a 49-year-old widow, says: “Many have good intentions, but they don’t take the initiative. They will often say, ‘If there is anything I can do, let me know.’ But I appreciated it when some just said, ‘I’m going shopping. How about coming along?’” Paul, whose wife died of cancer, explains why he appreciated being invited out. “At times,” he says, “you do not feel like interacting with people or talking about your situation. But after an evening of fellowship, you feel much better; you do not feel so alone. You know that people truly care, and that makes things easier.” *

 When Empathy Is Especially Appreciated

Helen found that it was when the majority of her relatives had returned to their daily routines that she most needed emotional support. “Friends and family are there for you in the beginning,” she says, “but then their lives go back to normal. Your life, however, doesn’t.” Being conscious of that reality, true friends will make themselves available and provide ongoing support.

Perhaps a widow or a widower may particularly need company on anniversaries, such as a wedding anniversary or the date of a mate’s death. Eileen, mentioned earlier, says that her adult son makes up for the emptiness she experiences on her wedding anniversary. “Every year,” she says, “my son Kevin takes me out for the day. I have lunch with him, and it has just been something between mum and son.” Why not take note of these most difficult periods for a family member or a friend who is a widow or a widower? You could then arrange for yourself or others to be with that person during such a difficult day.​—Proverbs 17:17.

Some have found that those who have lost a mate themselves can be of comfort. Annie, who has been a widow for eight years, says of her association with another widow, “Her determination made a strong impression on me and encouraged me to keep moving forward.”

Yes, after overcoming the initial stages of grief, widows and widowers can become a source of inspiration and hope for others. Two widows mentioned in the Bible, the young woman Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi, benefited from the support they gave to each other. That touching account describes how the mutual care these women displayed helped them overcome grief and cope with the challenging situation they faced.​—Ruth 1:15-17; 3:1; 4:14, 15.

A Time to Heal

In order to start living a fuller life again, widowed individuals need to find the right balance between preserving the memory of their loved one and caring for their own present needs. Wise King Solomon acknowledged that there is “a time to weep.” But he also said that there needs to be “a time to heal.”​—Ecclesiastes 3:3, 4.

Paul, mentioned above, illustrates how difficult it is to avoid living in the past. “My wife and I,” he says, “were like two young trees that grew up intertwined. But then one tree died and was removed, leaving the other appearing deformed. It felt strange just to be on my own.” Out of loyalty to a deceased mate, some refuse to let go of the past. Others worry that enjoying themselves might amount to a betrayal, so they refuse to go out or to meet other people. How is it possible to help widows and widowers gently to heal​—to move on with their lives?

A first step could be to help the person express his feelings. Herbert, who has been a widower for six years, says: “Especially do I treasure the times when visitors sat quietly and listened while I reminisced or verbalized something that was occupying my mind at the moment. I am sure that I was not always the best of company, but I appreciated the empathy.” Paul was particularly touched by the actions of a mature friend who regularly took the initiative to ask him how he was coping emotionally. Paul says, “I appreciated his sincere and mild approach and often told him how I was feeling at the time.”​—Proverbs 18:24.

 By expressing conflicting feelings, such as regrets, guilt, or anger, the bereaved person takes a crucial step toward acceptance of his or her new circumstances. In King David’s case, it was the pouring out of his heart before the best of confidants, Jehovah God, that allowed him to find the strength to ‘get up’ and accept the sad reality of the death of his young son.​—2 Samuel 12:19-23.

Even though it is difficult at first, in time a widowed person needs to get back into a daily routine. Can you include him or her in some of your daily activities, such as shopping or an evening stroll? Can you ask your friend for help with some task? That is another way to draw individuals out of their isolation. For example, could she look after the children or share the secrets of a food recipe? Could he help with some repairs around the house? In addition to providing stimulating activity, such requests reassure the person that he has a purpose in life.

By opening up to others once more, the bereaved person may progressively recover a taste for life and may even be able to set new goals. This was the case with Yonette, a 44-year-old widow and mother. She recalls: “Getting back to a regular routine was so difficult! Performing daily chores, managing my finances, and caring for three kids was really hard.” However, with time, Yonette learned to organize herself and to communicate better with her children. She also learned to accept the support of close friends.

“Life Remains a Precious Gift”

To be effective helpers, friends and family need to be realistic. For months, even years, the progress and hope of the widowed person may seesaw between periods of relative serenity and bouts of depression. Certainly, ‘the plague of his or her own heart’ can be severe.​—1 Kings 8:38, 39.

It is during such low periods that the surviving mate may need a gentle nudge in the right direction to avoid being cut off from reality and withdrawing into isolation. Such support has enabled many widows and widowers to give their life new direction. Claude, a 60-year-old widower and now a full-time evangelizer in Africa, says: “Life remains a precious gift, even after the heartache of being separated from one’s mate.”

After the death of a mate, life is not the same. Nevertheless, those who live on after the death of a loved one still have much to contribute to others.​—Ecclesiastes 11:7, 8.

[Footnotes]

^ par. 16 For further suggestions on providing practical help to the bereaved, see the brochure When Someone You Love Dies, pages 20-25, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.

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True friends will make themselves available and provide ongoing support

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 Precious Keepsakes or Impediments to Recovery?

“I kept a lot of my husband’s personal things,” says Helen, whose husband died only a few years ago. “I’m finding that those items bring me more happy memories as time goes by. I didn’t want to get rid of anything right away because feelings can change so much with time.”

By contrast, Claude, who lost his wife over five years ago, says: “As far as I’m concerned, I don’t need to be surrounded by her personal effects for her memory to live on. I think that disposing of her personal items has helped me to accept reality and make the grieving process easier.”

The above statements show how varied the choice of what to do with the possessions of the deceased one can be. Therefore, wise friends and relatives will refrain from trying to impose their own viewpoint on this matter.​—Galatians 6:2, 5.

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Are there specific dates when your help would be especially appreciated?

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Remember to invite them out

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Include widows and widowers in your daily activities or recreation