Widows cope amid grief from loss
GRAPEVINE, Texas (BP)--"I'll be OK," Joyce Rogers told her husband of 54 years as she anticipated his death. Looking back several years later, she wrote, "I don't know if he heard me, and I didn't exactly know what that meant. I just knew from the depths of my soul that God would take care of me. And, indeed He has!"
Her experience of how God brought her through "that incredibly difficult first year" is described in "Grace for the Widow, A Journey Through the Fog of Loss." Her late husband, Adrian Rogers, was pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church near Memphis, Tenn.
For many widows, Rogers said there's a sense that is comparable to a destructive tornado "that sweeps away our home while leaving another next to it unharmed." Lacking an explanation for why "one is taken and another is left," she sought to discover God's purpose for this new stage in life.
"I felt like I'd been hit in the stomach," added Karen Collett, whose husband died in 1997 after nearly 23 years of marriage. "There is just a numbness there. It stayed over the year. It lessened, but it was still difficult."
MANAGE AND COPE
"We probably don't ever 'recover' from grief; instead, we learn to manage and cope," explained Barbara M. Roberts in her handbook "Helping Those Who Hurt" for those involved in caring for others during a crisis.
Speaking at a Women's Leadership Consultation session held earlier this year at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Collett outlined the needs of widows at the time of the spouse's death as compared to the months and years beyond. She serves as women's auxiliary coordinator at Southwestern, where she maintains contact with widows across the United States through the Widow's Might prayer ministry.
When a terminal illness stretches out for months, the family benefits from the provision of meals, assistance with errands, transportation, babysitting and when appropriate, relieving the caregiver, she said.
Encouragement is greatly appreciated, but consideration of the individual's time is important, she advised.
"Phone calls can be very overwhelming. You're trying to be there with your children and you're saying the same thing for 15 minutes each time."
Her husband Dana was pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in Columbia, Md., when he was diagnosed with cancer.
Some families take advantage of Web-based technology that allows posting of updated information on a person's condition through one entry. Prayer chains should be succinct, taking care to pass along only accurate information, she added.
It often falls to a minister to guide a grieving widow through the steps she must soon take. Roberts' handbook outlines the initial decisions to be made at the mortuary and the process of planning a funeral service.
"If the death has been sudden, the shock stage will be severe. The care needed in that situation is much more intense," she wrote.
At the time of a death, many widows begin operating on autopilot, Collett shared.
"Just be there for them. Your whole security and support system gets ripped out from under you," she added.
"After the funeral is over and loved ones have gone home, you are faced with the mundane decisions of what to do," Rogers wrote in her book. She provides direction on tackling the long "to-do" list that ranges from writing thank-you notes to making financial decisions.
Julia Moore, the wife of a Southwestern Seminary student who died in 2006, recalled being so overwhelmed by the day-to-day events that she often forgot who had offered to help.
"Hundreds of cards and notes of sympathy arrived in the mail, phones calls and visitors were constant and food arrived daily like clockwork during the two weeks after Donald's death," she said. "Then the widow is left in a fog, wondering what just happened and where did everyone go?"
The simplest efforts sometimes make the greatest difference in a time of need.
"Sometimes you have a small voice that you recognized as God telling you something as simple as call this person, write this letter," said Anita Onarecker Wood of Spring, Texas, whose first husband died in 1996.
"You don't know what the outcome or long, far-reaching results of that might be," she said, encouraging believers to be obedient to the voice that brings to mind a person in need.
"Keep the notes coming," Collett said. "Remember special times like the anniversary of a birthday or the death. Eleven years out it still means so much as I'm thinking about Dana."
Out of the experience of being encouraged by others, Collett has learned to include a memory of the person who died when she sends sympathy cards.
She quoted from the commentary in the Woman's Study Bible, edited by Rhonda Kelley and Dorothy Patterson, to set the stage for a wide-ranging local church ministry to widows.
"'Everyone in the church is called to care for widows -- both materially and spiritually (Acts 6:1). The church should undergird and provide support for those who have no means of support and should give freely of time and life to widows. As part of giving to widows, an active effort should be made to include them in all activities of the church and to invite them to be a part of celebrations within the church family.'"
"Widows don't need to be just with widows, but in all of the age groups and with families," Collett said. "We are a family."
Some widows will be comfortable moving into a singles class, but others will want to remain with the same friends of a couples class, she said.
"You should be where you're more comfortable."
While the women's ministry of a local church is the best suited to provide for many of the spiritual needs of a widow through fellowship and friendship, the deacon body or a men's ministry can handle some of the practical needs.
Twenty-five years ago the Helping Hands ministry started at Birchman Baptist Church in Fort Worth for widows who lack assistance from their own families.
"It's biblical," said Johnny Johnson, who assumed oversight of the ministry seven years ago when he retired.
"I have nine widows that I take care of each week, cutting their grass, changing filters, cleaning out gutters, turning mattresses over and other maintenance of their homes," he said. "I treat them like they're my nine grandmothers."
During the summer, Johnson utilizes teenage boys from the church who earn credit for camps and mission trips through their labor for widows.
"Instead of asking Mom and Dad for money, we pay them $8 an hour and have had several pay their way to go to Brazil or Thailand," he said.
Each widow is assigned to a deacon who stays in touch with her, manages small repairs or maintenance, then makes Johnson aware of needs that require his help.
"If I can't take care of it, I help her find someone who can and interact with the contractor to make sure she doesn't get ripped off," he said.
Johnson usually monitors any outside work and negotiates the payment to be sure it's fair.
Widows at First Baptist Church in Dallas make their requests for help through the "minister of the day" who either handles the need himself or works through Jack and Mary Smith to access a network of individuals who stand ready to help with specific areas of expertise.
"If it's a legal problem such as a will, I'll call a deacon who is a lawyer. She might need a handyman to construct a wheelchair ramp," Smith said.
Dot Shackleford, another member of First Baptist Dallas, assisted Smith in surveying the preferences of the more than 300 widows and learned of their interest in meeting occasionally for fellowship. That led to hosting quarterly luncheons where men of the church serve the meal before the widows hear an entertaining or informative speaker.
"Anytime the lady doesn't have a ride, we get men of the church to go get her -- usually it's a deacon who goes," Smith said. "The men meet them at the doors and have wheelchairs ready for those who need them. We offer all the services we can possibly provide to be sure they come."
Diana Davis' book "Deacon Wives" addresses ways women can help widows.
"One of the primary opportunities of ministry for deacon wives in our church occurred when a church member or friend or relative of a church member died," Davis, whose husband Stephen Davis is executive director of the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana, wrote. "They made a significant Christian impact on every grieving person in our church, joyfully and respectfully serving in a time of need."
As deacons or other men of the church make visits to widows and assist with repairs, Moore suggests their wives go along to provide fellowship.
"When a man comes to help a widow in her home, it's always a good idea for him to bring his wife," she said, adding that such courtesy protects the reputation of all parties.
As widows move out of the fog of their loss, a local church can help them discover new ways to minister to others.
"God uses these widows in a remarkable way that they would never [have] imagined," Rogers said, telling those in a similar circumstance, "Take the sorrow that God has entrusted to you and be faithful with it. Look to Jesus! Trust him! Learn from him! And then reach out to your hurting world -- not just to others who have lost their mates, but to whatever hurting soul God brings your way."
Tammi Reed Ledbetter is news editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newspaper of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, online at texanonline.net.