Every day, I hear from grieving spouses. They are either in the process of caring for a terminally ill spouse or have recently lost him or her. The question I am asked most often – by a landslide – is some variation on “Why would God let this happen?” Because I’ve written a lot about the beauty that comes from battle, people often assume that I don’t deal with this question or that I’ve found a magic answer, but neither is true. I don’t have anything in the way of a formulaic answer, but I do think I’ve learned a little about what to do with the question itself. For the next couple of days, I’m going to write about what has worked for me on this and you can feel free to take it or leave it. Also, this may apply to situations beyond losing a spouse after a lengthy illness, but I can’t say that I know that for sure. I write from my battlefield and I know some principles will cross over, but I don’t know how many. Having said all that, here’s Part 1.
I know you want to know “Why?” I know the question is screaming at you for an answer. But the first thing I want to tell you, need to tell you, because I wish someone would have told me, is: you are not okay. I mean this with all the love and grace I possess. But, really, you’re not. If you are in the middle of caring for a dying spouse, or have recently lost one, you probably also:
1. Haven’t slept well in months, maybe years.
2. Have learned to ignore your own physical and emotional needs in order to keep the needs of your spouse first and foremost.
3. Are dealing with a myriad of external stressors related to long-term illness like insurance and money and doctors and paperwork and stuff with children, friends and relatives.
4. Are perhaps even dealing with a fair amount of PTSD.
5. Are really, really sad.
These things are completely normal, but they do not make this a good time to tackle deep, philosophical or theological questions. Imagine a rescue diver who just kept someone afloat in an ocean for hours, treading water, dodging sharks and praying they would both survive it. Now imagine, that as that diver stumbles into the boat, exhausted and overwhelmed, he is presented with a three-page test on bio-chemistry. He might know the answers are out there somewhere, but he is going to need a little time to restore and recover before he can trust himself to think coherently, much less solve complicated problems.
And the thing about this question – this big, beefy, large-consequences question – is that it will wait. It will be there when you’re back at your fighting weight. And when you get to that place, there’s a really good chance the question will look a little or a lot differently than it looks right now.
Let me be clear: you own this question and you have every right to tackle it whenever you want to. But nine months on the other side of my husband’s passing, I’m glad I waited. I’m glad I gave myself permission to shelve some of the big stuff while I learned to know myself again. There were moments when the question thumped like a drumbeat in the background, and I would have to say out loud: “This is not the time for that.” Instead, I focused on breathing deeply, eating well, sleeping again, journaling often, running some trails, loving my tribe and letting something that looked like “normal” seep back into my being. Once I arrived at month four or so, I felt a definite shift in perspective and I could see more clearly, think more comprehensively. Was the question still there? Yes. Sort of. But it wasn’t as weighty and desperate as before. And I had a broader frame of reference to bring to the process of answering it.
I have more to say about the Why God question, but for now, just know this: even if you’re not okay, that’s okay, because you are amazing. You are still standing and still fighting for hope and that makes you heroic. You have questions, I know, but you also have my awe and respect for the way you live and love. May you find all that you need for the day at hand.
Photo credit: www.lifelovelauren.com
(I can’t knit mittens, but I love my grandboys more than anything.)
Someone sent me an article recently about how widows in America are perceived. The author concluded that we are lumped into two categories and they are – hold onto your hats – Grandma or Vixen. The “grandmas” are those who decide to throw their energies into kids and grandkids and – oh, I don’t know – knitting mittens and baking cookies and other things that our tiny minds ascribe to excellent grandmothering. They stop coloring their hair, stop fighting the wrinkles and embrace the wisdom and invisibility that comes with old age. The “vixens” are those who have decided it’s not too late for a second act. They take singles cruises, shop dating sites, invest in botox and aren’t often invited over to couple’s homes for dinner (I’m not making that up – turns out widowers are included far more often in couples’ events, since the women planning the events are not threatened by them.) (I’m also not criticizing the article – it wasn’t bad or accusatory.)
I know. You’re shocked by that grossly oversimplified compartmentalizing of an entire group of women. I was too. But the more I think about it, the more I believe that the heart of it is this: widowed women are generally perceived as either wanting to remarry or not wanting to remarry. In spite of the fact that the institution of marriage has taken a beating in the last few decades, it’s still a central focus in American society. We still love love and romance and weddings. We still subconsciously gauge someone’s happiness by their relationship status. Every time I go out to dinner with couples, I feel the weight of their sympathy at the end as I walk to my car alone. And the reason I think I feel it now that I’m single is because I remember feeling it towards others when I was married. We are a society obsessed with belonging to someone and we assume that most widows are focused primarily on the will I or won’t I question as well.
I certainly don’t speak for all widows on this subject, but I can give a little bit of insider information from those I’m privileged to know. While a few women in my circle have decided that remarriage is absolutely, positively not in the cards for them – now or ever – most have not made that decision. However, I also cannot name a single woman who is dead set on remarriage either. Because it’s so much more complex than that. The idea of marriage is different at this age and stage of life than it was the first time around. Couple of reasons for that:
- We’ve already done it and we know it’s pretty hard. Even those of us who were married to amazing men have very realistic views on the complexities of joining two lives together in holy matrimony.
- We have kids and families in the mix now. Part of what held Steve and I together during the seasons when marriage wasn’t fun was our shared love for the children we created together. It’s hard to imagine sharing a marriage with someone who doesn’t also share your love and commitment to your children. I know it isn’t impossible, it’s just hard to imagine from this vantage point. It’s also hard to envision the seamless mingling of two family entities.
- For widows my age and older, we just don’t need marriage for the same reasons we used to. There are definitely still reasons to want it, they’re just not the same as they were when we were twenty. When I married Steve, I was focused on the family we would create, the home we would build, the ministry we would share, the money we would save. Now, I have all those things, which means I’m making decisions through a different grid.
- We are afraid. We have endured the death of a beloved. In some cases, we cared for them through the long, treacherous process. The idea of loving to that degree again is all tangled up with the very real risk of losing that love again. And it’s almost impossible to consider surviving it again – at least it is for me.
So you can see why it’s a hard question to answer with a Yes or a No. And, I tell you what, I am asked this question a lot (or I wouldn’t waste blog space on it.) At first I was shocked that people asked – not offended, just shocked. Now I’m neither (though I am thankful no one has so far asked: Grandma or Vixen?) My answer – and I believe this would be reflective of many widows I’ve talked to – is this: I haven’t made a decision about the idea of remarriage and I don’t think I need to. The institution of marriage, in and of itself, will never be enough to overcome all the concerns I have enumerated above. However, the possibility exists that somewhere in this great big world is an actual person who could convince me to take a risk on love. Not yet. Maybe not ever. But also: maybe. Someday.
I do not kid you when I say I feel zero inclination to push my way forward on this or to spend any precious minutes worrying about it. I feel 100% peace in living and building this amazing life God has given me, while trusting Him with every person, project and possibility that exists in my future. I don’t want to disappear into grandma’ing, though I love it. I’m also not going to fight my age (except I still color my hair and I won’t apologize for it!) or live on the lookout for someone who will please, please love and validate me. I just want to live out every minute in an all-caps YES toward the plans God has for me and the days He’s already written for my life. And most widows I know are in the very same place. So maybe, in the final analysis, our categories are too weak to hold the weight of life’s complexities. Maybe we should just let widows be women. Regular, wonderful women who want to live and love well with the days they’ve been given. Wouldn’t that be a good start?
The question I am asked most often right now is: What is the best way to relate to and care for widows and widowers? It’s usually closely followed by, “I’m afraid I’m going to do something wrong, so I don’t do anything.” First, it’s such a good question. Secondly, I struggle to answer it. I know the ways my community has blessed me, but my situation is only mine. I don’t have a complete worldview on this issue. So I turned to my friends who have been widowed in the past year or so and they sent me amazing input. Then I had a conversation with someone who was recently divorced and was struck by how different our experiences were. That’s when I decided to talk to a few people who haven’t experienced the death of a spouse, but they have experienced the death of a marriage. Now, I’m not sure which one is harder – they’re both so difficult and so different, but both leave us all in the same place: the land of the newly single. We’re different than the always-single. Used to being part of a couple and usually part of a community of couples, this strange land is fraught with frustration and heartache and, in some cases, shame.
These ideas are not my own, though I do share most of them. They are the collective thoughts from my conversations with some of the bravest people I know. They are by no means exhaustive nor universal, but I hope they inspire you to new levels of love and compassion toward the newly single in your life. Here are our thoughts:
It’s never bad to invite us to…well, pretty much anything.
Holidays can be hard and lonely, but so can regular old Tuesdays. Events with mostly couples can be hard, but invite us anyway – we’ll decide if we can handle it or not. And even though we’ve said no once or twice or five times, please keep asking us. Our ability to move out into society changes from day to day, so please don’t be offended if we have to decline a kind invitation – it still felt so nice to be asked into your world.
Be willing to listen long.
We have, in most cases, lost our primary processing person. We don’t necessarily need answers as much as we need to be able to talk our way to a conclusion or solution which is why we may cover the same ground over and over again. It’s tempting to want to give a lot of advice and it’s okay to offer some – but those who listen well are an amazing gift to us.
We appreciate your love for our kids – especially when you run it through us first.
Again, this one can be difficult to navigate because whatever it is that made us single has undoubtedly caused heartache for them as well. We have our eyes out for signs of fallout in their hearts and are cautious to expose them to anything else that might be hurtful. Offers to take them to coffee, or school clothes shopping or on your family vacation are so kind, but there may be reasons it won’t work, so just ask us first.
Here’s a tricky one: be careful in your attempts to set us up.
So, so careful. Some of my newly single friends are eager to welcome the involvement of their married friends in their dating lives, others are not. And across the board, my friends expressed a fair amount of shock and awe at how they’ve been set up and with whom. Let’s tackle those separately, shall we? Now understand, please, that I’M not in the dating market, but I’m going to speak collectively for the people who trusted me with their insight and so it will sound weird, but that’s just how this is going down.
- HOW to set up your newly single friend. Here are the don’ts: No blindsiding. No secret invites of other single friends, hoping they’ll meet, mingle and marry (totally going to trademark Meet, Mingle & Marry for a new dating web site. Because I have time for that.) Here are the do’s: Do ask permission. Do be honest about your motives (wanting to introduce two people who may become friends or more is not bad, it just becomes bad if people feel tricked) Do give your friend a way out if they are not comfortable.
- WITH WHOM: This one is a little tricky to talk about, but talk about it we must. We understand that the dating pool gets smaller as we get older. However, that does not mean our standards shrink along with it. We want someone who shares our beliefs and values. We want someone who has character and integrity. We want someone who – and I can’t stress how many times I’ve heard this, so it must really be a thing – is not crazy. I get that crazy can be subjective and a little crazy can be cute to some – but use good judgement here. And here are some random don’ts:
- Don’t put your friend in a situation that you yourself would not want to be in. Ask yourself: If roles were reversed, would I think this person was a legitimate option for my dating life? Then, add in all the pain and sorrow that comes from divorce or widowhood and multiply by 17 and you have the level of caution and disorientation your friend is feeling as he or she faces the whacky world of dating.
- Do not be offended if your friend asks to see a picture or a Facebook page before committing to a meeting. You would want one, too.
- Do not be offended if, after viewing said Facebook profile, your friend takes a pass.
- Do not be offended if, after one date, your friend doesn’t want another. Love and attraction are entirely subjective and what makes sense to you may not make any sense at all to them, and that’s okay. Almost every one of my friends made a comment along the lines of, “I’d rather have no one than settle for something that doesn’t feel right.” In my conversations, people who had lost their spouse to divorce were much more adamant on this point than those who were widowed. Though walking a spouse all the way to the end of his life is difficult, it also re-emphasizes the beauty and strength of committed love. Those who have watched the wedding vows die, on the other hand, do not always enjoy that same faith in relationships.
- Do not offer the possibility of finding a mate as a source of comfort. “Don’t worry, you’re young – you’ll love again” just really isn’t comforting. It implies that what we lost is replaceable and often times, the thing we lost was our faith in the safety and sanctity of marriage itself. So “again” is loaded with all sorts of emotions.
Speaking of people who have been through a divorce or difficult break up: This one is very tender. Every divorced friend I spoke with had a word in their lexicon that the widowed group did not, and the word is a powerful one: shame. They are carrying the weight of failure, whether perceived or actual. They are often locked in bitter battles for children or property or reputation. They haven’t just lost the friendship of a spouse, each one expressed the depth of pain in losing half their friends or their church or their in-laws. Sometimes they feel that married people eye them suspiciously when they get near their spouses. It is sorrow on top of sorrow.
Widows and widowers usually receive an outpouring of love and sympathy (at least initially), but divorced people are often tragically neglected as communities choose sides and scatter. The bottom line here, however, is love. Be willing to love your divorced friends without condition and without needing explanations or apologies. And in those situations where the social dynamic must change in your relationship (you probably won’t keep having your ex brother-in-law over for Christmas dinner), refuse to get caught up in the mudslide of gossip and slander that so easily rolls through communities (and social media!) in the aftermath of a marriage breakdown. Refuse to throw mud. And love instead. For the sake of broken hearts and hurting children and in honor of the grace of Jesus, choose generous, covering love.
Finally, stay in the game.
Many I talked with mentioned feeling that their friends gradually began to slide out of the picture. Sometimes it’s friend fatigue, sometimes it’s just forgetfulness. Once the initial shock is over, the surrounding community returns to their regular lives while the newly single person stands in the wreckage, wondering if rebuilding is even possible. If you’ve lost touch with someone you love who is rebuilding, it’s never too late to reengage. So many people have told me how sad they are for neglecting to stick close to their hurting friend and that they’re now too embarrassed to reach out. Don’t be that friend. Reach out. No need to over-explain or over-apologize, just say, “Hey I love you and I miss you and I want to get together whenever it works for you.” And then make it work. Because we’re all in this together, guys. And from my side of the newly-single fence: I need you. And I’m so glad you’re in my life.
And hey – single or formerly-single friends – comments are open: what did we miss?
Okay, yes. I know social media is an obsession and I know too many of us are fastened to our phones. I also get that we are presenting an overly stylized version of our lives. I don’t have to prove to anyone that our technology often outpaces our good sense. How many pictures do we need to see of your kid eating avocado? But, still…I remain unapologetically happy that millions of people are recording evidence of their existence, and their children and even their coffee.
I mean, you want to love your beautiful latte and remember how it looked next to your leather journal? Fantastic. I’m with you. Actually, I am you! I remember a day last year, right after Steve went on hospice when I, feeling broken and beaten, stumbled into my favorite little cafe and ordered a cappuccino. I actually only ever drink plain, black coffee, but I ordered a cappuccino because I knew my friend, Mekenzie, would make it look lovely and on that one day, it was the only lovely I had. It’s what I could hold and look at and hope into. Here’s what I posted on my instagram account that day:
I captioned it, “Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy this.” It took its place next to the millions of other pictures of coffee cups that day, but this one is mine. It represents a breakthrough of hope on a truly hopeless day. It means nothing to anyone else, but it means about a thousand things to me and – honestly – I owe it to a social media-obsessed generation. They’ve taught me to look at small things with big love. They’ve taught me to preserve moments of life in the face of death. They’ve taught me to scan for beauty and capture it. And, yep, they’ve taught me that sometimes it’s okay to wrap sharp edges in gauzy, grace-y filters.
A couple of weeks ago I went through my instagram account, poring over pictures of Steve and grandboys and trail runs and sandwiches that made my heart sing. Some were well-liked by those who follow me, others were barely noticed, but you wannna know what? I don’t regret a single one. Each photo sang a special song to me of a really brutal and beautiful season. In fact, my only regret was that I hadn’t taken more – and the reason I didn’t was because I worried that I would annoy people. I feared showing a piece of my life that seemed unworthy of the bandwidth, but now I understand there is no such thing. Not for me and not for you. Our lives are worthy and wonderful. And they may, in fact, annoy other people, but I am here to tell you: I will be a witness to your existence. I will cheer the big moments in your life like weddings and vacations and I will love the small moments like that baby and that avocado. I will love that picture of your open Bible, even if you didn’t have time to read it.
And I can’t linger long over your photos, but I will watch and wave as they go by and wish you a meaningful journey – on your perfectly filtered family days and on the deeply dark and un-photographed ones. Because, friend, you matter. You matter much.
As for me, I am taking a photo every day which I am tagging #ProjectYestoLife. I have no plan each day for what I will snap, all I know is that it will be something I said (or am saying) yes to. I will record this year – still brutal, still beautiful, still standing, and I hope you’ll wave as my moments go by, but I won’t be sad if you don’t. Because this is my Yes and only I can say it and live it. In the end, I just want to remember that I did.
Here’s my question today: how are you recording your life? Words? Photos? Photo albums? Choreographed dance? I’d love to know!
With so much hope and so much Yes,
I love passion like Oprah loves bread (and I also love bread.)
The feeling of passion that inspires deep love, desire, anger, hatred, outrage, exasperation, reminds us we’re alive and kicking. This is good. For those of us who have experienced the lethargy of grief, these sparky emotions create a sense of something that may not be called “pleasant”, but could be called Phew.
When sorrow kicks in the door and we employ all our numbing agents to survive it, it’s often a huge relief just to feel anything other than sadness. Even being mad at the political system has been a welcome change of emotion for me from sadness. It’s a spark, and I don’t think feeling the spark is bad. But it can become bad if I respond to it without discipline because, for me, passion fuels words. And words start fires. (For other people, passion can fuel relationships or addictions or extreme decisions or fantastic decisions – it all depends on how we channel it.)
As I move further into this new life without Steve, I feel myself slowly waking up – a little like the way the anesthesia wears off after a root canal. I always want to eat as soon as I start to feel again, but I forget that I can’t feel enough yet to not bite my own cheek. And I’ve found that it’s possible to do a fair amount of self-injury, coming out of the sorrow stupor if I haven’t built in some boundaries for channeling passion in healthy ways. For me, the boundaries are:
- Truth-telling friends who are given plenty of opportunity to speak into my life.
- A determination to get myself out of my comfort zone (aka: my quiet house) because I’ve learned that things grow very, very big inside my own head and when I take those thoughts out into the real world, they quickly shrink down to their real size.
- A first-thing-every-morning meeting with myself to answer one main question that will order my day and my decisions: what does love require of me? Because love gives purpose to passion.
And even with these guard rails, I feel like I still blow it at least as often as I get it right. But passion is real and powerful, and feeling it is a gift. My big prayer at this stage of the game is to channel it well and wisely and my second big prayer is that our good and gracious God will keep the fallout contained when I don’t. He’s good that way, I think, even when I’m not.