The widow’s place in the Church in our times seems a bit vague. We are not exactly single. We are alone without our spouses, but they do exist in the next life. Often we are single moms, whose place in the Church seems elusive as well.
The eventual death of a spouse is not spoken of in our marriage preparation. I think it should be talked about. One partner is sure to experience it.
I have come to think of my widowhood as “part two” of my vocation as a wife. I just discovered that the Church agrees with me. “Widowhood, accepted bravely as a continuation of the marriage vocation, should be esteemed by all” ( Gaudium et spes, 48)
I am profoundly altered both by the love I knew and the suffering I lived through.
We widows have a lot to give. We have learned to be co-redeemers with Our Lady. Our hearts are wells of a unique compassion for all in mourning or sorrow. We have learned the depths of love.
If you find yourself on the widow’s path, here are my own discoveries I hope will help.
Your husband was unique and unrepeatable, containing a universe of his own, and in whom God dwelled.God remembers and cherishes everything about him. He is alive in God and he continues his journey.
Your relationship with your husband was unique and unrepeatable, containing a universe of its own, cherished and remembered by God. It is alive in God and still accessible to you spiritually.
As St. Teresa of Avila said, God lives within us, enthroned in the center of our hearts. This means that all of Heaven is there in our souls as well. We share spiritual goods with those in Purgatory, and we are all one in the Lord.
In the depths of my agony I would ask my husband in spirit, “How could you go somewhere I could not go? How can you be happy in Heaven when I am going through hell? Do you still love me? Are you still my husband?”
Of course death was not his choice. But these were the cries of my heart. I came to understand that he was a compassionate witness to my suffering. I received a strong sense of his continued love for me.
That last burning question, “Are you still my husband,” caused me a lot of unnecessary pain. On the surface it does sound like the answer is no. “There will be no marriage or giving in marriage in the world to come” (Matt.22:30.) This verse has been historically emphasized in favor of virginity by Catholic writers. This idea was extremely upsetting to me. Why would every other relationship pass through heaven’s gates but not this one in which I became one with my husband? When I was widowed for the second time, this came up again for me because of a homily I heard at mass on this verse. A visiting priest said that husbands and wives always say they want to know their spouses in Heaven but that we needed to let that go. It just freaked me out. I went outside and cried. Priests, when you preach on this verse, please remember me and every other grieving widow in your audience. Say a word of comfort for us to mitigate the sorrow we feel when you imply our profound loss will not be restored to us as the other ones will be.
The resolution to this question of whether my late husband is still my husband is this:
Love is stronger than death. (Sngs 6:8)
Love is the greatest of the “three that remain” (1 Cor.13.) Love is eternal whatever happens on earth or Heaven, and even though all things pass away. I know both my late husbands are very much with me. Not only that but they will be with me in Heaven as well, and God treasures the love we share. St. Joseph is still Our Lady’s husband. He is still right next to her, even though her ultimate Spouse is the Holy Spirit. What we will be in Heaven individually is not clear to us now (1Jn. 3:2.) However we will be more not less. I believe our relationships will be more and not less in Heaven. God will wipe every tear from our eyes and there will be no more death or separation. (Rev.21:4)
Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
In the meantime I have discovered Jesus as my ultimate spouse just as the widowed Saints have done.
No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate. But you will be called Hephzibah, and your land Beulah; for the Lord will take delight in you, and you will be called espoused. As a young man marries a young woman, so will your Builder marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you. Isaiah 62:4-5
A whole new kind of love has opened up to me. I feel as if I am a mother and sister to everyone with a free and expansive heart. The love I had with my husbands and our journeys together have made me who I am. Grief, intense loss and suffering have made me who I am. Taking all of that burning love and sorrow before the throne of God constantly continues to transform it into a greater depth of prayer and service in this world.
This growth required surrender. I had to be able to tell God that for love of him I gave my consent to this way of life I had not wanted, and that I would stay in this world as long as he wanted me to, in the way he wanted me to. I begged him that this experience would purify my heart and draw me closer to him.
My first husband, Marc, was killed in a car accident when he was only twenty-eight. We had a three month old and an almost five year old. I kissed Marc goodbye in the morning and never saw him again.
His death and our loss felt brutal and senseless.
I prayed all the time, “Increase the strength of my soul” (Ps. 138:3.) And God did.
Nobody tells you how hard it is not to kill yourself when you are suddenly widowed like that. Only the love of God and of my children kept me from it.
The Eucharist kept me alive as well. It is a gift from God that my husband had a premonition of his death and said, “No matter what happens we will always be together in the Eucharist.” He had wanted to renew our wedding vows there and then, which we did. A friend called this “a preparatory gift of the Holy Spirit.”
My kids and I went to mass every day. I needed Jesus more than ever.
I didn’t see how I could ever be OK without Marc. It seemed being OK without him would be a betrayal. A kindly widower gave me peace about this. He said, “If your arm is amputated you learn to live without that arm. But that arm never grows back.”
And so it was. I never stopped loving Marc. At fifty-four I love him as much as I ever did. But I have learned to live without him in this world.
In spite of my sorrow I was able to raise my kids joyfully. Our house was like a cross between Pippy Longstocking’s house and a little monastery; a fun, quirky place where we also prayed a lot. We took in many animals, and always had the neighborhood kids running in and out. We were that house on our street where most of the kids hung out. Our family and friends were often there just to be there, have some iced tea, pray in our little oratory.
I never wanted to marry again. When I found myself falling in love with Bob ten years after the death of my first husband, I had to pray a lot to be able to accept it. I learned that Bob was not replacing Marc. My daughters and I were only setting another place at the table.
Bob wrote to my brother-in-law Frank before our wedding, “Marc’s stories will always be told around our table, his picture will always hang on our wall, and his ring will always be on her finger.” This is how it was.
Walking with Bob through his journey with Brain Cancer was the most amazing thing the kids and I have ever done. We fought a beautiful fight and we lived and loved every minute. When the time came, my heart had to expand exponentially to be able let him go with love and even joy amidst the pain. I realized I could not deny Jesus anything, not even Bob. His death was beautiful, loving, and in my arms. Ten years later I still carry that great love.
A help to me both times I have been widowed was Ronda Chervin’s book on the widowed saints, A Widow’s Walk. She introduced me to Our Lady as a widow, which has meant a lot to me.
Saints come to us at different times in our lives. These days I feel close to St. Elizabeth Anne Seton, who has never appealed to me especially before.
She loved her husband deeply. His death was traumatic for her. She was left with five children as well as seven more, her brother-in-law’s children who had been orphaned. After her conversion to Catholicism, she identified profoundly with Our Lady’s sorrow.
Through faith and prayer, her suffering love was transformed into a powerful and fruitful love for others, especially those in need. She was a spiritual mother of many, founding Catholic Schools in our country and doing every kind of good work for the poor.
I’ve been helping to form a new nonprofit in our town even though I feel unequal in every way. St. Elizabeth seems to be praying for me and helping me be brave. As widows we have an understanding.
Something Bob said as we tried to process his terrifying diagnosis of Glioblastoma multiforme (stage 4- terrible news!) has continued to guide my life.
As we held each other I asked, “What do we do?” “Well,” he said, “We love, we walk on.”