Widowhood is one of the most shattering experiences that can ever happen to a woman. It leaves her alone, sometimes poor and friendless, in a world geared to married couples. It can take as long as two years for a new widow to fully adjust to her new status. Some (such as the happy old woman on the facing page) carve out a new and productive life alone. But other widows have special problems that can only be alleviated by the care and concern of those around them. The Bible places heavy emphasis on the Christian-responsibility to provide support — emotional and otherwise — for those women who have lost their mates.
Poor Henry. Gone so suddenly. He was a really fine guy... the whole neighborhood will miss him. And his wife — she's really shook up. Three fine kids with no father. Not much life insurance, mortgage payments sky-high — she'll have to sell the house, probably get a job. But she always was a homebody. Poor thing — we'll have to have her over for dinner some night. But no, that would foul things up. Can't invite another fellow so soon; it would be awkward. Maybe she'd enjoy bridge with us girls some evening. But honestly, I'd really feel sort of funny having her around when Fred was home. I'm not the jealous type at all, but I know how things are with widows and you can't be too careful. Maybe she'd fit in at that big party we're going to have.
And so it goes. Another Henry dies, another woman loses her man, her credit cards, her friends and her identity. In the United States, one out of ten households is headed by a widow. Eleven million women exist in the twilight zone between marriage and their own death. And while 70% of men over age 65 are married, only 30% of the women are. In spite of the fact that most married women outlive their husbands, few bother to face this reality ahead of time. It's like old age — when we're twenty we believe it'll never happen to us. The Widow's Plight. Our society tends to approach widowhood with its collective head in the sand. In fact, death has replaced sex as our national taboo. Widows remind us of our own mortality, so we have systematically shut them out of our lives and consciousness. Ours is a subtle but no less cruel form of the Hindu suttee — only modern custom relegates the widow to a psychological funeral pyre. As far as the mainstream of society is concerned, a widow is as "dead" as her husband. And the very structure of things militates against a woman preparing for her statistically probable fate. "Don't worry about geometry — you'll never use it. Take home ec instead. Get married as soon as you can — why bother to learn how to type? He'll take care of you." Then, when the inevitable has happened, a woman may have nothing to fall back on. She may have no financial resources to prevent her from sinking below the poverty level. Although she may have served well as a wife and mother, this line of work is usually not too well-paying outside the home. Perhaps too tired to work as a clerk or waitress and too unskilled for office work, she may find herself in the middle of that awkward age between welfare and Social Security. And perhaps her husband "protected" her from the financial details that might have halfway prepared her for this turn of events. Does God Want Widows to Suffer? What goes through God's mind when He looks down and sees society's callous disregard for the widow's plight? Did He really mean for things to be this way? Today's society is far from God-ordained — God cannot be blamed for the "raw deal" so many widows receive. God says He is a "Father of the fatherless and protector of widows" (Ps. 68:5). What if He were now taking a direct hand in human government? How would He care for women who have lost their husbands? God has left us a record of how He handled the "widow problem" in His theocracy of ancient Israel. That record, the Bible, shows how He set up some really progressive laws that protected widows both legally and financially. One of those laws reads: "You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you do afflict them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry; and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless" (Ex. 22:22-24). Ancient Social Security. Back then God executed "justice for the fatherless and the widow..." (Deut. 10:18; see also 24:17 and 27:19). He instituted a fair and just system of social security for those who needed it. Here is what He commanded the Israelites to do: "At the end of every three years you shall bring forth all the tithe [tenth] of your produce in the same year, and lay it up within your towns; and the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled; that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do" (Deut. 14:28-29; see also Deut. 26:12-13). God also told them: "When you reap your harvest in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow; that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow" (Deut. 24:19-22). When Israel rebelled from obeying these laws, God roundly condemned them — especially for forsaking the widow. He warned in Isaiah 1:23: "Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the fatherless, and the widow's cause does not come to them." He threatened vengeance on those who oppressed the widow and the orphan (Jer. 7:6). Israel did not repent of these sins, and eventually was taken into captivity as punishment. Support Your Local Widow. God's instructions are no less clear for Christians today. He still has the same concern for widows He exhibited in Old Testament times. He inspired the apostle Paul to instruct the New Testament church: "If a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn their religious duty to their own family and make some return to their parents; for this is acceptable in the sight of God.... If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever" (I Tim. 5:4, 8). Paul continued: "If any believing [man or] woman has relatives who are widows, let her assist them; let the church not be burdened, so that it may assist those who are real widows" (verse 16). So Christians today have an obligation to help support close relatives who are widows if they are at all financially capable of doing so. In some countries such as the United States, programs like Social Security provide at least a minimal income for widows after they reach a certain age, and in some instances provide child support. But not every widow will qualify for this assistance. In such cases it may be necessary for her to rely on the church or some other charity for support. And even though a Christian already contributes toward Social Security, he should also be willing to contribute to these other programs as he is able. Emotional Support. But widows need more than mere financial aid. During the first weeks and months of widowhood, emotional support is also desperately needed. But people willing to "weep with those who weep" (Rom. 12:15) are rare indeed. "Sociologist Robert Fulton raised this problem in a conference on widowhood. 'Whom can you turn to when you are touched by death?' he asked. His discomforting answer was, 'There aren't very many people who are prepared to come to your assistance either socially or emotionally. In fact, it is sometimes hard to find anyone who will even talk to you about your loss'" (Lynn Caine, Widow, New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1974, p. 139). But such listening can be a greater gift than any amount of money one could give: "Verbal repetition eventually dulls the horrendous shock enough so that it can be faced, can be accepted. Talking helps us absorb less tragic situations, but even then listeners tend to resist. People scoff at the woman who says, 'Let me tell you about my operation.' Why? Because it makes them feel uncomfortable. Vulnerable. Such intimations of mortality are frightening to most of us. Our fear outweighs our desire to help" (ibid., p. 139). But a genuine practicing Christian ought to be willing to lend a compassionate ear. Helping Widows Reenter Society. Once a widow has adjusted to life alone, she still must face a world that is geared to couples. The woman alone today is considered a fifth wheel, a threat. "The prevailing assumption is that there is 'something wrong' with any woman alone" (Patricia O'Brien, The Woman Alone, New York: Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co., 1973, p. 70). When a man dies, his wife is usually gradually but systematically excluded from her former social relationships. Unless she has formed a circle of friends entirely her own, after a time she may be left out in the cold. This is another area where Christians have an opportunity to help. It may be uncomfortable at first to break out of the "couple" rut, but, as Margaret Mead said: "'I think that family living... will become increasingly narrow, cramped and frustrating unless married couples open the doors of their homes and bring some singles into their lives. Opening the door of friendship to the widowed, the divorced and the never-married would bring a family blessed relief from the daily repetition of the same themes and the same controversies through the welcome diversity of other views and other interests.' This will not occur until married women gain courage and have enough faith in their own worth to welcome other women as friends. (And until their husbands can see widows as more than sex objects or bores.)" (Caine, op. cit., pp. 178-179.) A younger widow may also really appreciate the opportunity for her children to be able to have some masculine companionship. A Christian family should be stable enough to share itself with those in need of emotional support — without the specter of jealousy or petty social considerations intervening. The apostle James wrote that "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction" (James 1:27). This sort of thing — remembering the widow — is what real Christianity is all about.