Monday, March 29, 2010

On What I Said to the Crowd

Early in February I was asked to speak at our evening church service. It is a tradition in our church to have a service conducted and implemented completely by the men each year. I have never participated in this and am still not really sure why I was asked to speak (of all things). The only guideline I was given was to take a passage of Scripture and speak on it for about ten minutes (I took almost fifteen).

It was immediately apparent in my mind that I would speak about how to help widow/ers and I remembered the verse about helping orphans and widows (though I admit I had to look it up as I had no idea where it was in the Bible). And since I also have a heart for orphan care, I managed to throw in some information about helping orphans as well.

I know many of your spiritual beliefs may differ from mine and I completely respect that. I ask only for that attitude to be reciprocated as you read what I shared and know that I used the opportunity I was given to get the word out about helping widow/ers.

I actually presented this information on Sunday, February 28, 2010, just two days after the third anniversary of my wife’s death.

Please turn in your Bibles with me to James 1:27. While you’re turning there, I’ll offer a bit of background on the book of James. It is believed to have been written by Jesus’ brother, the first fully biological son of Mary and Joseph, who was instrumental in the development of the early Christian church. It was written less as a way to explain Christianity to the early church, and more as a guide for teaching Christians practical applications for living out our faith.

It sounds like most of you have found the verse, so let’s read James 1:27. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (NIV).This is a verse we often hear, especially in the context of orphan care. It is the “theme verse” for Show Hope, the adoption organization Steven Curtis Chapman and his wife Mary Beth began several years ago. It is a verse that is often used in this context and is one of the few places in the Bible where orphans and widows are specifically mentioned.

So as not to take the verse completely out of context, I’d like to offer a little background. James 1:27 falls at the end of a section in which James is instructing the early church regarding sin and adherence to the Word of God. It seems that the early church, just as many of us today, was pretty good at listening to what was preached, but not so good at actually following through with it on a daily basis. They were good at getting dragged into a variety of sinful behaviors because of their, and our, focus on the things of this world. Earlier in Chapter 1, James even likens this to looking at oneself in the mirror then forgetting what one looks like when the mirror is removed. God wants us not only to hear his Word, but to put it into practice as well.

This is where verse 27 comes in. Here James gives us a very practical way that we can put our faith into action: by caring for orphans and widows. Or, in the most literal translation of this verse, by sharing the Word of God with them. James goes on to remind us again that we are to keep ourselves from being polluted by the world, which is something that would require much more time than the few minutes I have allotted this evening.

So now that we’ve looked at the context surrounding this verse, I’d like to look again at the beginning of James 1:27. Let’s read it again. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world”.

I am not going to spend a great deal of time tonight discussing how we can help orphans. Though I do have a heart for orphan care and adoption, there are several organizations in place, such as Show Hope, which I mentioned earlier, that are doing an excellent job of getting the word out about orphan care. There are numerous resources online for any number of these organizations that would be glad to help you get started in assisting with orphan care on some level.

There are however, very few organizations that deal with practical ways to help widows and widowers, so I will spend the remainder of this time focusing on that.

The fact of the matter is that it is very easy to help children who are unable to help themselves. And even to a lesser extent, it is easy to help widows who have small children, especially if their husband was the sole breadwinner. But what to do with self-sufficient widows? And what do we make of widowers with small children?

For those of you here tonight who are not aware, Friday made three years since my wife passed away. I was 29 at the time and my daughter had just turned 3.

Some of the ideas I will mention momentarily are things that were done for us by members of this congregation and other friends during the early months following her death.

Many of you are probably also aware of [another family in our community], and I know some of you know them personally. If you do not know them, write down these items anyway as you will almost certainly know another young widow or widower in your lifetime. And even if you don’t, these ideas also work wonders for single parents…

In the interest of time, I will only be sharing ten practical ideas for helping widows beyond praying for them and sharing the Gospel with them (if necessary).

They are presented in no particular order.

1. Offer to watch the kids.

Widows and widowers often very quickly develop a sense that we have to do it all alone. It doesn’t occur to us to ask for help, and when it does, we decline the notion for fear of imposing on anyone, especially if we don’t have family close by to rely upon. I recall only asking for help if I was in a bind, and typically for me that was mainly during the summer when I had to mow the lawn.

It doesn’t have to be much – a simple “Let me take the kids for a few hours so you can get some things done around the house” will suffice. But be persistent. I found that if I told people no once, they often didn’t ask again. The people who kept asking were the ones whose offers I eventually accepted.

2. Invite them over for dinner.

Again, this is an area where you might have to be a bit persistent. One thing about widows and widowers is that we suddenly find ourselves in a very awkward place in society, especially if we have children. We are no longer married, but we still feel married. We don’t usually fit in with the singles crowd, but we also no longer fit in with the married crowd either. For widows with children, it may be a bit easier to fit in with the Mommy crowd, but single dads aren’t generally welcomed into that group either (for a variety of reasons which I won’t spend time on tonight).

There were a couple of families who were very good about inviting us over for dinner in the months following [my wife’s] death. They were not always elaborate meals and we weren’t invited often, but those simple invitations were a great way to help me remain connected with other families.

3. Take them dinner.

So what if you’re not the best host or hostess in the world? That doesn’t let you off the hook either. Now, this is not to say that these people are not good hostesses, but there were also some families in this congregation who were good about bringing meals.

Here’s what’s important to remember about this: don’t take meals during the first few days. Everyone else is bringing in food then, and most of the time the family doesn’t really feel like eating it. The meals that meant the most to me were the ones that came two or three or even four months later, when most people had moved on with their own lives.

Again, don’t take no for an answer, Just call and say, I’d like to bring you such and such sometime soon, when would be a good time?

4. Don’t forget them.

As I’ve mentioned a few times throughout this list, timing is important. We all want to respond immediately when someone has lost a spouse and rightly so. But it was amazing to me how quickly people went back to their own lives and seemed to forget that we were still hurting. So make it a point to send a card, or cook a meal, or make a phone call periodically as time passes.

I have several friends who still do this on occasion, even though it has been three years. If you are worried about forgetting, flip ahead in your day planner or set-up a reminder in your cell phone to do so. It doesn’t matter by what means you’ve remembered, it just matters that you do remember.

5. Do something practical.

A little gesture goes a long way.

I knew of a woman who was behind on her ironing when her mother passed away. A co-worker insisted that she let her do the ironing. It turned out to be a blessing for both the woman and her co-worker. For me, it was mowing the yard. There were a few times when I’d come home and the yard would be completely mowed, trimming and all. I found out later that once it was a former co-worker and twice it was my nearest neighbors. It was a thoughtful gesture, and it was nice to come home and have one less thing to do on those evenings.

6. Send money.

Nearly everyone who is close to the family sends a sympathy card. This might sound like an odd suggestion, but consider including some cash or a gift card as well. I’ll be honest, the first sympathy card I opened with money inside threw me a bit. I was still reeling emotionally, and could not figure out why someone would send money. But there are significant costs associated with funeral services and burials, and not everyone has insurance to prepare for those things. And even if they do, the everyday bills suddenly need to be paid on one person’s salary, so any money you send will be put to good use.

Several people sent us restaurant gift cards also. I tried to cook as often as possible, but on those days when I just wasn’t up to it and there was no more lasagna left in the freezer, it was nice to be able to take [my daughter] out for dinner and not have to worry about how to pay for it.

7. Keep your condolences simple.

If you attend the wake or the funeral, say whatever you need to say about how sorry you are for the family then. But when you see them out and about for the first time after that – at work, at church, at the grocery – keep it simple. The best thing anyone said to me when I returned to work was “I’m glad you’re back”. It was a simple statement with no specific reference to what had happened, yet the person acknowledged it without upsetting me.

Too often we are worried about what to say and end up making the situation worse. So when in doubt, keep it simple. If the person did not share personal details of their lives with you before, they are not likely to do so after. And all they want is for things in their public lives to return to normal as quickly as possible.

8. Don’t be afraid to share memories.

While it may not be appropriate to share memories with the person as soon as they arrive back to work, there will likely come a time when it will be. Don’t be afraid to do so when the time is right. One of the best things people can do, even now, is share a memory they have of [my wife] in the context of a conversation.

Since Friday was the third anniversary of [my wife’s] death, I posted a comment on Facebook for people to share memories of her. It was wonderful to be able to read those memories throughout the day and actually helped to make the day a bit more bearable for me.

9. Don’t deny the person’s existence.

To take this one step further, don’t be afraid to talk about the person in general and use their name when doing so. It doesn’t always have to be a special or elaborate memory. It could be something as simple as referring to “[my wife’s] parents” instead of “[my daughter’s] grandparents”.

One of the things that has meant the most to me is when people have made comments or told stories and used [my wife’s] name. It is validation that not only did she exist and play an important role in [my daughter’s] and my life, but that she meant something to other people as well.

10. Listen without talking.

If you find yourself in a position where a widow or widower is sharing their feelings with you. listen, listen, listen. You don’t have to say a word. Just listen. Sometimes all we want is to be able to get something specific off of our chest.

Now, most of you will probably never find yourself in this position as widows and widowers tend to be very private about their situation. But if you do, just remember that listening is the absolute best possible thing you can do.

There are plenty more things you can do to help a widow or widower in their time of need, but these ten will give you a good place to start.

If you have any specific questions, please feel free to contact me.

Thank you.

At the time I uttered these words, I did not know that the audio would end up on our church’s website within a few hours’ time. About a week after I received the e-mail regarding this, I decided to also post the link on Facebook. I’ve never been asked to speak about being widowed before, and I’m not sure that I ever will again, so I wanted to get this out to as many people as possible who might not otherwise hear this type of information.

Posting it here is yet another step in that process.


  1. Excellent advice! Well done.

  2. Excellent. You have done a wonderful job describing the needs of the widowed, as well as the practical ways to be of help. I too felt overwhelmed at the time of Michael's death, and had a difficult time knowing how to accept and use offers of help. Later, after the initial couple of months had passed is when I would have better used the help. Even now, after 6 months there are times when I could really use some help. Perhaps it isn't just help, but as you say, a willing listener.

    You provided an important message with the opporunity you were given. Hopefully we will all take this as a reminder to reach out to others in their time of need.

  3. Bless you, 3SF!!!! This is EXACTLY the sort of post (and speech) that the general public need, need, NEEDS to be educated about! #7, 8, and 9 especially resignated with me because they were the demons I battled most often in my own journey. These are the things I really try to tell others when they approach me for advice in talking to other widow/widowers.

    As a side note in regard to #7, the HR lady told me upon my return to work two weeks after my husband died, "It's good you are back. Life is for the living!"

    Oh did that really make me angry... Of course life is for the living. I know she was trying to say something helpful and positive, but it felt really dismissive of my husband's life, my grief, and the road ahead. It was too achingly close to my most hated phrase, "move on." That's definitely a case where she really just should have left it at, "It's good to see you back."

  4. A few months after James died a friend sent me an e-mail apologizing for being a bad friend for not being in better contact with me but she honestly had no idea what to say. As odd as it may sound, that was one of the best things anyone has said to me. I was so grateful for that honesty instead of yet another platitude.

    One of the hardest things for me has been accepting help-as you mentioned in #1, I am bound and determined to do this all on my own. I tearfully asked my neighbors to not mow my lawn anymore because I felt guilty they were doing it for me. We ended up striking a deal-they mowed my lawn and in exchange I made them cookies. That worked for me-I actually hate yardwork, but love to bake and it got me baking again.

    And after 26 months, my biggest fear is still that people are going to forget about James. I love it when people tell me "we were just talking about him the other day and how he would always say/do ..."

    This was an excellent post. Thank you for sharing it.

  5. Heather, don't worry about people forgetting James. I lost my husband 9 years ago tomorrow and my friends and family still remember and think fondly of him. Now that some time has passed, people are more forthcoming with sharing memories of him... That's the best thing all this passage of time has done...

  6. Thank you for sharing this with not only us, but with members of your congregation/community. Good for you for recognizing the need for information for those who might want to help friends/family members who are grieving but don't know how. Peace to you and yours.