As a longtime pastor, Sid Nichols has stood at the casket with many surviving spouses, assuring them of the sufficiency of God’s grace in difficult circumstances. However, when Nichols lost his wife, Barbara, to cancer in 2010 he found himself desperately seeking to feel the grace he knew was present.
“Though I believed it with every fiber of my being, after Barbara died there were times that I could not feel it,” Nichols said. “I was hurting so badly and grieving so hard that I just could not feel His grace in that moment. I know that was me and not Him but there is truth in the statement that you cannot imagine how it feels to lose your spouse unless you have been there.”
Nichols, director of missions for Calhoun Baptist Association, writes about the months following Barbara’s death in “When the Crying Stops and the Weeping Begins: An Intentional Ministry Plan for New Widows or Widowers.”
He describes the weeks following Barbara’s death as “the darkest days of his life,” filled with pain, loneliness and the realization that Barbara was “not there and she was not ever going to be there again.”
When a spouse dies the routine of what had previously been considered “normal life” is disrupted, writes June Hunt, founder of the biblical counseling ministry Hope For The Heart and author of “How to Handle Your Emotions: Anger, Depression, Fear, Grief, Rejection, Self-Worth.”
“Life will eventually return to normal, though what that looks like will be different than before,” according to Hunt. “When death takes someone dear to your heart, your life will not ‘return to normal.’ However, you need to establish a ‘new normal.’”
Sadness and grief are part of the new normal, at least for a while, writes Richard Mabry, author of “The Tender Scar: Life After the Death of a Spouse.”
“Foremost is a certain kind of sadness — a sadness engendered by the knowledge that the spouse whom the bereaved loved for so many years, the spouse who loved that widowed person so intimately and knew him or her so well, has passed from this present life,” he writes.
Grief also is a natural response to death. However, mourning, which is the expression of grief, is different for every individual, said Steve Sweatt, clinical director of Community Grief Support Services in Birmingham.
Readiness to date and remarry
Multiple factors affect the intensity and duration of one’s grief but all are related to one’s readiness to date and remarry, Sweatt said. Two important factors are the nature of the loss and the nature of the relationship the survivor had with the deceased.
In cases where the deceased spouse has been ill for some time the surviving spouse may have assumed all of the responsibilities for running the household and feel more independent as a result. In such cases the surviving spouse may feel a greater readiness to move forward into social activities, including dating.
The opposite also can happen.
“Sometimes in a long-term caregiving situation the surviving spouse has put so much into caregiving that they have nothing to fall back on. They often have let social relationships go or not attended church in a while. When their spouse dies they have lost their sense of purpose and have a tremendous adjustment to make to being on their own,” Sweatt said.
Surviving spouses who have experienced a sudden, traumatic loss also typically have a harder time coping than those who have had time to anticipate and prepare for their loved one’s death, Sweatt said.
Regardless of the circumstances the surviving spouse will experience a wide range of emotional responses in the weeks and months following the death of a spouse.
“There may be anger, guilt, hurt, sadness or longing. The surviving spouse may even feel ambivalent. One task in grief is the maintenance of a continuing bond with the one who has died. The surviving spouse has to make peace with those feelings,” Sweatt said.
Reconciliation of those feelings and emotions toward the deceased is just one factor that might signal readiness to date again, however, Sweatt said. Another is a substantial reduction in pain and stress over the loss. A third is the survivor’s functionality, or the way the individual has moved from a couple’s identity into a single’s identity and taken on the responsibilities previously shouldered by the deceased, which is a very important indicator.
“One thing we don’t want to see is that an individual replaces one’s spouse,” Sweatt said. “There’s an old adage that says, ‘Women mourn, men replace.’ Men are often quicker to move into relationships with new spouses because they have greater difficulty adapting to the loss of their mate, who is often the one who ran the household, cooked the meals and kept the social calendar.”
Women are less prone to marry again quickly because they typically have better developed social networks, Sweatt said. However, he counsels both men and women to refrain from leaping directly into dating and instead to participate in group events that women and men, such as a singles group at church.
“The creation of a new social circle and patching up one’s network of support is another key task in healing from grief,” Sweatt said.
Even during the time of mourning a surviving spouse can begin to look outward and forward, Mabry writes. Solitary activities such as painting, reading or writing can help fill time. Increased involvement in church, social activities and recreation can help as well.
Though marriage may not be on the mind of the surviving spouse there is always a possibility that God has prepared another person to share the future with a widow or widower, Mabry writes.
“Our culture has led us to believe that for every man or woman there is one perfect mate. When that match is dissolved by death we’ve been conditioned to think that there’ll never be another love in our lives,” he writes. “I don’t begin to understand how this can be but I can attest that it’s possible for God to place in our paths other individuals whom we can love and cherish.”