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2009-09-15 issue:

Help the widowed

Here's why and how.

by Ethel Kolb with Barbara Borntrager

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A pastor’s wife said: “What can be done to help widowed people? We don’t know what their needs are.” This raised the challenge to find out what the needs of widows and widowers are and communicate those needs to the church. With the input of a widow, a member of her family and a pastor’s wife, someone developed a survey to determine the needs of the widowed. The survey was distributed to about 60 widowed people in 10 Mennonite congregations and a few other people across the country. This is a summary of the results.

Biblical background: The Scriptures tell us the widowed are to be treated and cared for. Exodus 22:22 says: “Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless” (NIV). These are the words the Lord gave Moses to give to the people. Deuteronomy 16:11 includes the widows and orphans in the community celebration during the Feast of Weeks. Deuteronomy 24:19-21 commands the community to leave produce in the fields and on the vines for the alien, fatherless and widowed. Isaiah 1:17 instructs us to “seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (NIV).

Acts 6:1 lays out the complaint of the widowed and the first church’s response to their needs. A system of care also developed from this complaint to meet the needs of the widowed. Much of 1 Timothy 5 addresses the needs and actions of the widowed and what the response of the widow’s family and church should be. James 1:27 defines what makes our actions acceptable to God our Father: “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (NIV). Cultures have changed over time, but the needs of the widowed remain.

 Life for the widowed person changes dramatically upon the death of the spouse. This article deals mostly with the needs of the surviving spouse, but when dependent children live with the surviving spouse, the issues faced intensify.

Usually, adult children are expected to help, and most do what they can, but some people don’t have children. Others have only one or two children who may not be living near enough to help on a regular basis or on short notice. Our culture no longer invites the widowed parent into the home of one of the children. This creates an opportunity for the church family to fill in the gap and provide support. Churches can develop a care program for the widowed. This could be done through a benevolent committee or a separate committee trained specifically to assist the widowed. Initially, a designated couple or person “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” could visit the widowed to discuss and analyze the needs, explore how to meet those needs and develop a working plan to be implemented.

Social: The survey listed social opportunities and fellowship as the leading initial and ongoing need. Widowed people need relationships with other people more than ever. Comments from the survey said: “If only people would call to see how I’m doing, it would mean so much. It would show they cared about me.” “I felt abandoned. At first I was cared for well, but now I am forgotten.” “Having someone to just listen” was repeated over and over. Social interaction and activities are needed immediately after the death and on an ongoing basis as long as the person remains single. Extend an invitation to any event and don’t be offended if the response is no or a request for a rain check.

For the young widow/widowers with children, social interaction with someone of the same sex as the missing parent is important. These children need a positive role model to fill in the gap but not replace the missing parent. Providing the children with a role model of the now-deceased parent is important for the children’s social development. Consistency and follow through are important to these children. When you say you are going to do something, make sure you follow through.

Daily living: Many responses dealt with daily living needs. Transportation is a real need for those who don’t drive at all or have limited driving ability. For the person living independently, routine maintenance and small jobs around the house need to be done. Having a list of people available to serve as gardener, plumber, electrician or driver was one suggestion in the survey.

Financial: One-fourth of the respondents listed financial needs as a significant part of their daily lives. Many older people have limited income. For the low-income survivor, a few dollars a week or two before the social security check comes in is helpful. Gift certificates for food, heating oil, a local department store or a roll of first class stamps are other ways to ease the financial needs. Some financial needs can be short-term or ongoing and can be supervised by a financial counselor.

Physical: After such a traumatic experience, the surviving spouse may experience physical problems. Frequent contact will aid in identifying potential problems and obtaining early intervention as needed. Interventions may be short or long term. During an illness, daily contact to check on their welfare is necessary.

Emotional: Emotions are an important part of life. Each event in our life affects our emotions. Death has the greatest impact on our emotions. It is easy to become discouraged, depressed and full of self-pity. One respondent said, “No one really knows how I struggle with depression.” Be understanding; take the initiative to ask the widowed about their emotional state. Often it provides the opportunity to share thoughts, joys and sorrows, needs and concerns. Recognize that grieving does not end with the funeral or the first anniversary of the death. Mood swings are normal and may occur for a long time.

Spiritual: Sixty percent of respondents said the experience of losing their spouse drew them closer to the Lord, while the remaining said it had no real effect on their relationship to God.

Suffering the loss of a companion or loved one may draw us closer to God or drive us away, making us bitter and miserable. The widowed may need to be reminded that God has a purpose for being here that is not fulfilled. They need help finding this purpose. Several respondents mentioned that getting involved in outreach programs helped them move on in life and gave them a sense of purpose. Participation in church activities, committees and outreach opportunities can help meet spiritual, social and emotional needs at the same time.

People who never married or have experienced separation through divorce, experience some of the same needs. Singleness in the Mennonite culture is often viewed as a flaw, especially if the single person is a female. Females in the Mennonite culture have historically been taught to be passive and submissive to men, making life as a single woman difficult. Single men fair somewhat better, since men are viewed as leaders and are encouraged to be independent.

Paul admonishes singles to stay single because they have the freedom to serve the Lord without the encumbrances of marriage and family. Remember them also as you accept the challenges of helping God’s people who are in need.

Conclusion: Each church should have a system for caring for the widowed. How this looks will depend on the size of the church and gifts within the church. It may be more feasible for smaller churches to share resources in serving the widowed. However it is handled, there needs to be an initial evaluation of the individual’s needs, a plan developed and resources provided to meet those needs. There must also be consistent, ongoing periodic assessment of the individual’s needs and adjustments made for as long as care is needed.

The needs expressed in this limited survey are too complex and great in scope for any individual to handle. The needs of the widowed will need to be met by all members of the body of Christ participating together in the most effective, efficient manner possible. How that looks will vary as much as the individuals involved are different. Perhaps a committee could evaluate the initial needs, then establish support for the widowed through small groups or in partnership with a couple or community resources. These are only ideas to start the thought process. The real work begins in the heart of each Christian brother and sister, continues in the church family and extends into the community.

Ethel Kolb attends Mechville Mennonite Church, Fredericksburg, Pa. Barbara Borntrager, Ethel’s daughter, attends Parker Hills Bible Fellowship in Parker, Colo.

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