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Grief, Holiness and Wholeness: Understanding the Widowed

By Dan Shea
February 24th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Those who walked hand in hand in the shadow of death find it somewhat natural to want to follow in the late spouse's footsteps.  Divided in half, the widowed are challenged to grow whole again at a time when they are mentally and emotionally distraught.  Being alone demands creativity and forces the inner being to provide contentment that is not to be found elsewhere. 

FLORIDA (Catholic Online) - "Everyone can master a grief but he that has it."   -Shakespeare

The death of a spouse is a devastating experience.  Not surprisingly then, the loss of one's spouse has been described as the single most stressful life event, more stressful than serious personal illness, separation, or divorce; being sentenced to prison; or living through the death of a parent or child.  The death of a spouse, even in "loosely connected" couples, also requires the greatest life readjustment of any stressful event, and this holds true across all age groups and cultural backgrounds.

Due to the exclusivity of marriage, the loss of a spouse leaves only one widow or widower from that death, while others can offer sympathy, the surviving spouse can comfortably turn to no one who is in the same position, having lost that particular person as spouse.  The pain of this conflict is exacerbated by the recognition that the one person in whom one would have confided-the one most likely to listen to and accept it without ridicule-is gone

The eminent Fulton Sheen said, "In true married love, it is not that two hearts walk side by side through life.  Rather, the two hearts become one heart.  That is why death is not separation of two hearts, but the tearing apart of one heart.  It is this that makes the bitterness of grief."  The dissolution of a partnership, undeniably, takes the edge off living.  Being together is a magnificent gift in itself but it is never fully appreciated until it is lost.  Kahlil Gibran wrote, "Love knows not tis own depth until the hour of separation."

Those who walked hand in hand in the shadow of death find it somewhat natural to want to follow in the late spouse's footsteps.  Divided in half, the widowed are challenged to grow whole again at a time when they are mentally and emotionally distraught.  Being alone demands creativity and forces the inner being to provide contentment that is not to be found elsewhere.  Married couples take on the world together; the widowed bear the difficulties of life alone.  Eventually, they learn to accept that the uninitiated are unable to understand their grief.  Most people have a strong aversion to their status and keep their distance to preserve the illusion that death of a spouse only happens to others.  Frankly, encountering the widowed is a powerful reminder it can happen to anyone.

For this reason, many choose to remain aloof believing affable indifference is the prerogative of the well bred.  However, Fulton Sheen noted, "Because the lonely isolate themselves, others feel justified in ignoring them."  Unfortunately, indifference is one of the most common complaints from those who have lost a spouse.  The pain of being alone is made worse by denial and neglect.  Even family members and close friends often discourage them from talking about their loss and quickly change the subject if they do.  Still some widowed persons must talk openly about their loss without being stifled or judged.  They need to tell their story repeatedly because with each retelling another layer of healing is applied.

With the passing of a spouse, friends are eager to suggest one needs to consider "letting go."  For those who were deeply in love this is a foreign notion.  The widowed do not willingly let go of their spouse.  In time, they realize letting go means giving up their past way of life which had run its course.  It is time to fashion a new way of thinking.  Regrettably those who do not recognize the extent of a widower's anguish often proffer unsolicited advice.  More often than not these easy speeches only comfort the self-appointed counselors.  They never envision their suggestions may have already been considered.  They fail to grasp that grief prevents many of the bereaved from taking action, any action, of any kind.

However, many of the widowed continue to be loyal to their spouse because their love has not diminished.  This is why "letting go" is so immensely difficult because it confirms that which they most want to deny-they are alone. It is a painful and gradual process adjusting to present realities. One must appreciate Shakespeare's observation, "What wound did ever heal but by degrees."

Those who simply give advice, unknowingly, distance themselves from the pain they mean to alleviate.  Perhaps, it is naive to expect others to discern how the widowed ache to recapture life's most valued gift, another day with the one who defined their world.  Those who must expose the depth of their grief, yearn for someone who will listen and provide the healing ointment of compassion.  The truly compassionate realize their understanding does not remove the pain of loss but it does provide a salve for its relief.

With the loss of a spouse's support one's identity is obscured and they feel disconnected from all that was familiar.  Still they frequently sense their spouse's presence, which adds to their confusion.  Widowhood has placed them in limbo until they decide who "they" will become.  The widowed recognize some type of moral support is essential for their perseverance and stability.

Grief is a sobering experience.  It forces the bereft to focus on the purpose of living.  In isolation, they are often moved to seek Divine guidance.  It is a belief in God that provides a reason for the existence of pain and suffering.   They open their hearts and minds to the power of God's grace hoping it will provide the way back to wholeness.  Through prayerful meditation they are exposed God's mercy. His mercy can help them to turn their loneliness into insightful solitude.  Nevertheless, many are attuned to Gibran's observation, "Love is timeless.death does not separate the lover from the beloved."  Hence, they may accept the reality of the situation, but not the permanence

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Dan Shea lives and writes from Florida. Long active in his parish and in the Right to Life movement, he has written two books Beyond Banter & Banalities and Breaking Father Down.


 

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