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A Young Widow On How to Treat Young Widows

August 6, AD2013


In my work with grieving families, much of the coaching I do is to help young grieving parents communicate their needs to their friends/relatives so that those close to them, who may not have any previous experience with perinatal death, can be supportive and nurturing rather than adding to the burdens of the grieving.

Then, in my own life I became a rare statistic, one of the 1.8% of women in their 40\’s living as widows. My research showed that 2.6% of 40-something women are widowed, 1.8% not remarried. Slightly over 1% of men the same age are widowers with less than 1% not remarried.

Before I go any further, please let me recognize that (especially in Catholic life and tradition) there are those of all ages who choose to maintain devotion to their marriage and/or experience an evolution in vocation towards consecrated life in (or out of) a community after the death of a spouse. My own grandmother chose to consider herself a married woman after 47 years with my grandfather and scoffed at any suggestions to the contrary. I often wondered if my husband might consider the priesthood if I were to die while he was young enough for that to be an option. As much as I respect this option, I want to focus on those of us who continue to consider ourselves as marriage-minded after spousal death. You may have one or two peers navigating the choppy waters as a new widow/er.

A safe general rule in grief is to let the griever set the tone for interactions. If the griever is in a calm, more content moment, share that moment with her. If he is weepy and taken over by a wave of sadness, stay steady with him but don’t try to fix him like a broken toy. I would have been insulted early in my grief if had anyone suggested that a future relationship would improve my happiness; it would have sounded to me like that person was saying my husband was disposable. However, as I healed and began to look up and past the clouds of the moment, I began to have hope for the future and that included the possibility that I might eventually love again, but I needed to get to that place on my own.

What has genuinely surprised me (and the main reason I wanted to write on this topic) is the overbearing sense of expectations I perceive coming from others and how it really hurt me and complicated my healing. I urge you not to do this to others in my circumstance.

I have heard it said that a marriage is like a house with no windows. No matter how close you get, you can never look in. It’s probably a good thing that I can’t discern if it is harder to reflect on the good memories or the bad ones because I wouldn’t share that information anyway. The movie We Bought a Zoo tried to show the pain of young spousal death and I was amused watching it because it didn’t even come close. How a spouse processes the deep grief of loss is profound and extreme and primitive and very, very private. Trust the griever. Trust that she did the hard work whether it took her 5 years or 6 months to face down that dragon. Trust also that he doesn’t owe you any explanations about it.

Living in a situation where gutting pain lurks in every drawer and around every corner is surreal. Imagine how hard it was for me to try to find hope and begin to socialize again, only to be met with the too common reaction — people asking how long it had been since my husbands death.

I eventually realized that my whole life I have heard people make snarky, overreaching, and nosy comments on this subject (alas, it is a societal oddity), but it never hit home because I never imagined myself in this situation.

I always felt I was a really good wife. I was a military spouse for 18 of our 26 years of marriage, with the unavoidable deployments, moves, and hardships that come with it. I was faithful, loyal and devoted. But when people impose their expectations on me, it\’s as if they expect me to prove my devotion to my husband all over again, as if none of our life together counted.

While we need to be cautious and protective of widow/ers who may be so fragile and vulnerable that they could be easily victimized (emotionally, financially or otherwise), I have come to see comments like, \”What do you mean she is dating? Its only been a year and a half since her husband died!\” as extraordinarily harsh to the point of cruelty. How long does a person have to be isolated to prove they were hurt when a spouse died? Do people who say that grasp the magnitude of the inference they are making about the bereaved who are trying to heal and create a life for themselves? I was even afraid to write this column lest someone–anyone–accuse me of not being devoted enough.

So why did I write it?

I wrote it because this is an ideal topic for a Catholic column. Our societal stupidity on this subject is really contrary to our faith teaching, and if we apply actual teachings to this we can nurture hurting people and do better than our society teaches us to do.

The vow we take is “until death do us part.” Let grieving widows and widowers set their own time table without dumping extra expectations on them. The widow/ers I have known who remarried fastest were the ones with the best marriages. Their willingness to consider another love was a witness to the positive aspects of marriage.

Having your spouse go to Purgatory is a huge chance to use intercessory prayer as a tool for his or her well-being and we can ask for ask for our spouses intercession also.

I had the chance to demonstrate the fact that I really believed what I said I believed. My husband\’s death gave me a chance to witness to others. As much as I agonized over the sudden and unchangeable absence of my life partner, I had the opportunity to rejoice that he died in a state of active and earnest living of his Catholic faith. I picked the readings for his funeral knowing that I had a captive audience, the 6th chapter of John and 1 Thessalonians 4:13. \”We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.\”

Last, allow me to express gratitude to my (forever) Mother-in-law, the same one from the We Can’t all be Good Cooks column. She was incredibly gracious and kind the day I called to tell her that I had become reacquainted with a male friend from childhood who was kind to me and respectful of her son’s former place in my life.

Her reaction: “Every day since he died, I dreamed of this day.”
Her only question: “Will he protect you?”

What a lovely, selfless, and hopeful way to react. Again we can learn from her.

© 2013. Tammy Ruiz. All Rights Reserved.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

Filed in: Marriage & Family

About the Author:

Tammy Ruiz Ziegler has been a Nurse for 30 years and spent most of her career in Neonatal Intensive Care. For 10 years, she has been a Perinatal Bereavement Coordinator - caring for women and families suffering miscarriage, stillbirth, neonatal death and SIDS. Part of her work involves assisting parents in preparing for births when the baby has received the diagnosis of a life limiting condition (often called "Perinatal Hospice"). In addition to her Nursing education, she studied (but did not become certified in) Clinical Pastoral Education at a Catholic Hospital in the midwest. She has been on EWTN and speaks regularly to Physicians & Nurses on the topic of perinatal loss care. Her work has been translated into Polish, Spanish, Czech, French, Italian & Japanese. Her career was both fragmented and enhanced by having 14 different jobs because of moves for her husband who was an active duty Officer in the USMC. She has 3 quasi-adult children and one super-cute grandchild. A convert to the Catholic Church, she was widowed after 26 years of marriage but recently married a man she met when they were both children.

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  • Jay

    the church allows people to remarry if a wife dies or husband when there are kids involved , but it’s very much looked down apon. Anyone who remarries after their partner pass away have no respect for themselves or their partner.

  • MJ

    I too am a Catholic widow (widowed at the age of 40, with two young children). Nine years later and I have not remarried. Anyone who has comments about how long someone should wait should keep it to themselves. Unless you have lived through the death of a spouse, you have no idea how you would react. It is not something I would wish on anyone, to lose a spouse that you love and have a family with.

    Until I read your statistics, I never knew how small of a population that i really was a part of. In my church there is a singles group for 30 and under and a widows group for 60 and over. Almost no other peers makes it really hard to navigate. I have always felt very alone in my journey.

    thank you for writing this.

  • Anners1960

    Thank you for this article! At 52 I lost my closest sister to a brain tumor. Seven short weeks later, my 86 year old mother let go of this world after surviving pancreatic cancer for 21 years. She was amazing. At her funeral on the day before Mother’s Day we commented that the following Saturday we would gather as a family and rejoice over the wedding of our oldest son! The morning of the wedding we found my husband on the livingroom floor. He had gone to be with Jesus in the night. We had the wedding that day- he would have wanted it. Needless to say, this was the most surreal day of my life. He was only 54 and never sick. We had been married 33 yrs. and together for 36. I was 15 when we began dating, so knew no other life than being married and raising five children. Our youngest was just finishing his Jr. Year of high school. Our second child is a single mother with a child we had helped raise while she was in college and working full time. Within 15 months our youngest flew the nest and the single daughter and our grandchild moved four hours away. Virtually everything about my life changed in a year and three months. No longer a wife or raising children, I started a nonprofit for grieving families and spent most days in serious prayer. Just a few weeks ago a man entered my life and we are in serious “like” and falling… I had no idea how sad and lonely I was until I met him and began to laugh again. I could care less what people outside my family think of me regarding this relationship, but my children’s, sisters’ and in-laws’ opinions mean a great deal to me. So far, so good with them accepting my decision to seek companionship again. One or two of the children are less than elated, but they are trying! Those same children ran background checks on my new friend- we met via a Catholic dating site the day after I had declared myself “DONE” with internet dating! God is good and we will have to see where this goes, but I am thankful for the joy that his company brings me. I contemplated a religious life alone and yet my loving Heavenly Father has sent me a gift in this new friend. God bless you for writing this healing and freeing article, and may you find unspeakable joy AGAIN in your life!

    • NurseTammy

      Well golly Anners, I quit checking for comments a few weeks after this was published and I never saw your comment. You suffered so much loss, what a great joy that you found a companion. Are you still seeing each other? My gentleman companion is a manI met 40 years ago on the bus to elementary school. He is a KIND and trustworthy man and those seem to be in short supply. Write with an update if you like !

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  • TheReluctantWidow

    Oh, you have said some things that I have thought myself over the last few months. My husband died 13 months ago. I have four children I am actively parenting (12, 9, 9, and 8 yrs). I had a really amazing husband and a very good marriage. I am in my late 40’s. When my husband first died, I could never imagine life with another man, never imagined being able to love someone as I loved him, or really give myself entirely to as I had him. Now I don’t know that I hold on to that assertion so tightly. I miss being a wife. But I do worry what others might say if I ventured the statement “maybe in another year or so I might be ready to think of marriage again.” I am kind of in the in-between stage in life. A younger widow and most would assume re-marriage. An older widow and most would assume not. I feel guilty about the hope building in my heart that maybe I am not “done” yet. Thank you. I am going to share your article on my blog.

    • NurseTammy

      Im so glad that (as a widow yourself) you appreciated what I said. I didnt pick the term “young” for the title (the site editors did) but I was pretty happy that they deemed me “young” hahaha!

      I think its OK that we look at ourselves as having been led to the vocation of marriage in how God made us and that didn’t entirely change when our husbands died.

      The ages of children do impact how our whole dynamic functions – my 2 older children are adults (boomerang adults who lived at home, one with a baby) and “my baby” was a Jr in High School when her dad died (heart-wrenching misery for her sweet self). For me now, I’m looking at all my kids moving out within a year and I didn’t want to wait until I was all alone to find a companion.

      Remarriage is not a given either, I went into a small panic when I learned there are 4 widows for every widower, so the assumption that each of us will have a few nice widowers to pick from is wrong. For Catholic widows we must look at who can validly remarry and that adds whole other levels of complexity – add to it financial issues, family stuff, careers.

      I felt like I had been strong and faithful up to that point, but when considering prospects for the future, it looked like puzzle pieces that would never fit together. I was a bundle of mess about this and I set it at the foot of the cross with a prayer that sounded something like “Dear God, good luck with THIS mess and please make your answer clear” and then I emotionally wandered away from God for the first time in a long while. I didn’t feel strong enough to wait on God for very long and Im not proud of that.

      God would have been perfectly justified in delaying an answer to teach me patience but He chose to bless me in a way that left me quite humbled. He reacquainted me with a man I knew as a child and dated at 19, but had long ago lost track of. This gentleman had been single/annulled for 12 years – hence my humility – I am not sure I am wonderful enough for anyone to wait 12 years for. We are not yet discussing marriage for a myriad of reasons, but if God brought me this far, I have regained hope that He will lead me properly as to what the next step should be.

    • Another Widow

      I am another youngish widow with young children. I became a widow three+ years ago at 38 after 16 years of marriage. My children now are 16, 13, 10 and 7. I have to say, I find value in historical ideas about the appropriate time for grieving, refraining from remarriage or dating, and that kind of thing. I don’t plan to remarry. I can’t rule it out because only God knows the future, but I lean more towards the consecrated widow path rather than the looking to marry again path. I know exactly what you mean about the puzzle pieces that will never fit though. A good man in his 40s who is single/annulled is a rare thing. The wandering away thing was also me, though fortunately I was pulled back from the brink, I am not kidding. But my first feeling upon being widowed was that I didn’t want to marry again. So I am letting that be my answer and learning to be OK with it, despite my friends’ well meaning attempts to convince me otherwise. 🙂

  • GL

    Thank you for the thoughtful article Tammy. Would you have any advice on how to be supportive to friends who lose a young son(child) to cancer?

    • NurseTammy

      If I meet someone out in the world who tells me their child is dead, I say “Tell my your child’s name” because they often love to say the name but that same name has become almost taboo in their circles after the death. Another thing I sometimes say is “if you would ever like to tell their story, I would be honored to hear it”. Later, I might say things like “today I thought of Zara, ___ reminded me of her and I thought of her the rest of the day”.

      Make time with you a safe place where they can speak of them. If they cry, just wait it out – don’t try to change it. If you area a safe place, you will likely hear about that child for years and being willing to be that to them is a wonderful kindness.

  • Mish

    This was a very good article and insightful. I’ve dealt with several young widows/widowers at my parish and it is heartbreaking how they are sometimes ‘whispered about’ because ‘they didn’t wait long enough’. For goodness’s sakes, what is ‘long enough’ to be ready to love again? It doesn’t mean you have forgotten but marriage ends at death…as the Church teaches. Thank you for this article!

    • NurseTammy

      This is exactly what I was trying to address, thank you for validating my point. There seems a special cruelty to me that the whisperers are almost always someone with a living spouse to go home to. I felt as if they wanted me to live as if my husband were on a business trip – faithful to someone who wasn’t there. As a military wife, I weathered numerous 6 month deployments – I know what it is to be faithful and true (in body, mind and spirit) to a person who isn”t there. I began to think “they want me to pretend like he is coming back, but he is gone forever and never ever coming back, which one of us is delusional?”

      My gentleman companion and I have a lovely backstory of having met in childhood, dating briefly in our late teens then getting reconnected after my husband’s death when my father searched for him hoping to find him single (he obviously was). I ran into a woman who said “I heard you were dating and I said ‘WHAT?!’ but then I heard your cute story and I figured it was OK”. She thought she was reassuring me but what I heard is that had I just met him, it would have been perceived as unseemly. Both he and I are the same people cute backstory or not…I got the message loud and clear that my marital devotion was once again put on a scale for onlookers to score.

  • Norman

    Thank you and very much agreed, literally, with everything you wrote right down to the last line!
    I also appreciate fellow Catholics reading this because I’m a bit younger and go to church, so if a peers friend dies they’ll come to me and say “you go to church, what do I do???”, but as much as mass prepares you for all sorts of things, this is a very particular situation that needs Catholic preparation not always provided in mass on a weekly basis. Great article and thanks again!

  • Toby

    I respectfully disagree with your assertion that it is up to the widow/er alone and I so very much wish that society still imposed an external period of respectful mourning that gradually stepped and widow/er and his/her FAMILY and CHILDREN through an understood pre-determined time and process. I come from a family of undertakers and I know this issue from both sides.
    At the age of 72, my father took up with my mother’s best friend just two months after she died and gave her my mother’s clothes. I found out when a friend, unaware of my mother’s recent death told me she had seen my parents out to dinner together. I was crushed
    My best friend died of cancer at 40, leaving 2 young sons. A few months later, as I was just beginning to come to grips with her loss, her husband asked me to sign paperwork at our parish so that he could skip the 6 month waiting period and marry a young widow with three children that he met through a Catholic singles service. They’d had maybe 6 dates. He said his son’s “needed a mother”. I signed the paperwork as it only asked questions about “maturity” and the “individuals” “freedom” to marry, and then I told Father I was certain it was a very bad idea. They may have been free and capable to make the decision, but their children were incompatible and very much still in mourning. They married and it fell apart in less than a year.
    So I say to the widow/er – when you married you created a FAMILY. It’s NOT just about you anymore!!!

    • NurseTammy

      The powerful examples you use clearly demonstrate that we need to use wisdom, discernment, kindness, & consideration (of those we share life with) when making big life decisions but I disagree that societally imposed expectations pressured upon the bereaved is the way to facilitate wisdom.

  • K.C.Thomas

    Nice thoughts. Each individual has his or her own perspecive. The decision must be taken with God s,help. God consoles and fills the bereaved with maturity and wisdom

  • Mary C. Tillotson

    Tammy, you always make me cry! (In a good way.)

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