Abundant Living

Starting Over After the Death of a Spouse
By Virgil Fry

"Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith, 'A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half;
Trust God, see all nor be afraid!

Robert Browning's words resonate with those who choose a long-term marriage commitment. Many of us entered our marriages with the firmly planted ideal that this is the partner we would be with for our entire lives. We managed through the newlywed years. We struggled in the middle years. We balanced careers, children, uncertain finances, setbacks and heartaches. In our hearts and minds, the future pointed toward togetherness. Old age would be the "golden years" - special moments when schedules slacken, love for each other blossoms in new ways and, in an ever-changing world, we would have each other.

Then... death takes one spouse - sometimes suddenly - sometimes after extended illness. The surviving spouse is left alone, holding only memories and shared possessions.

Closets become holders of sentimental treasures. The dream of being together forever is ended. Death trumps life. Shattered pieces, along with unfulfilled future dreams, are left behind.

The phrase "grief work" becomes all too real, for the death of a committed, loving spouse is brutal. We get no more days or months or years together to work through life's challenges or to enjoy each other's constancy.

In such sorrow, the challenge now becomes how to identify and re-invent myself - to learn the unwanted role of being single after being a husband or wife for decades.

I vividly remember a few in my congregation urging me to join a singles Bible class. I refused. I remember sitting in worship, thinking of the 33 years my wife, Caryl, was always beside me. I sat alone. I remember filling out a budget pledge card that asked if my pledge was for me or for the entire family. I sadly realized I could check both boxes.

I am learning much through the process of reinventing myself. I continue to be amazed at God's gracious hands in the toughest of times - ... of His...

  • providing listening ears when I just need to tell "Caryl stories,"
  • providing a CPA friend to literally sit beside me to sort through financial papers that were in total disarray,
  • filling the lonely house with soothing memories, promising the next life will be made completely new and whole,
  • letting me see rays of hope break through the clouds of dark grief, and moving me into an undesired, yet new normal.

Let me share some reflections for those of us who are rebuilding our lives after the death of a long spousal relationship...

  1. 1. Moving forward, even in small steps, is not being unfaithful or unloving to your deceased spouse. True love lives on, even as we make our lives new.
  2. 2. There will always be moments of remembering your spouse: anniversaries, holidays, birthdays, dates of passing, etc. These painful and loving reminders are deeply imbedded within us.
  3. 3. As a body rebuilds after an amputation, so will our emotional selves after the loss of our "other half." We will - with God's power - find meaning and purpose in our lives. We will slowly learn our new identity as a whole person. The scars remain, but daily life can be joyful again.
  4. 4. There will always be the unfinished business of our marital relationship - what I wish my wife would have said or done, what I regret doing or saying, what was less than perfect in our communication. This reality, this guilt, doesn't negate the love that existed. Rather, it becomes an expression of the love that remains.
  5. 5. Grievers develop the gift of coming to terms with life's impermanence, realizing the spiritual truth of the song, "This World Is Not My Home."
  6. 6. We have the privilege of honestly, sensitively walking with others who are suffering loss, being the presence of God for them as others have been for us. Grievers share an unspoken language, knowing the mystery of death cannot be explained away or made easier by trite phrases.
  7. 7. Everyone grieves in their own way. Some find they want to enter new relationships; others choose to stay single. Some clear out closets and mementos quickly; others leave belongings just as they were at the time of death. It is up to the griever to make such difficult decisions.

I once was telling the story of my marriage to a group of university students. I reflected on Caryl's last two years of protracted illness and her death. When I finished, one young woman quietly asked me, "Is it really better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?"

I teared up a little, then firmly answered, "Absolutely."

Virgil Fry is executive director of Lifeline Chaplaincy and its companion arm, Compassionate Touch. Lifeline Chaplaincy has programs in Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth and Central Texas. Fry has been executive director of the 32-year-old program since 1985. His wife, Caryl, died in 2007. To access articles of Lifeline Chaplaincy, go to www. lifelinechaplaincy.org.