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What young widows need you to know about their grief

I was in the States a few months ago  when a young police officer was shot down miles from where I was staying in Colorado. He was just 30 years old, and he left behind a young wife and two babies. Micah Flick was murdered in the line of duty in my hometown last week. I worked with Micah’s mother for a few years, and his sister was the first babysitter I left my little girls with when I was a young single mother. Micah also had a young family: a wife and seven-year-old twins.

Just a few days ago, a friend from high school posted about the sudden and tragic death of her husband. Michelle is my age, 47 years old. She has two handsome sons that by all appearances are grown men, yet I am sure the sudden loss of their father is bringing the little boys deep within them to the surface.  

For me, any picture or story of a young widow, whether I know them well or are just hearing their stories via the news, will always hit me in the very center of my soul. It is no longer pain I feel for myself, but rather a familiarity and compassion that run so deep I struggle to hold myself together.

I was a young widow, and yet I would never pretend to understand what any young widow is going through. I would never disrespect their journey or their individual story with the arrogance of thinking that I could ever speak for them. I don’t know their pain – no one truly does – because it is their pain and it is as unique and sacred as their relationship with their husband was…or should I say, is.  

You see, words like “widow” take a long time to settle in. These women will need a lot of time to acclimate to their new reality. In their hearts, minds, and very beings, they are still married and they are still someone’s wife. They are still very much in love with their men, and in a way they are more in love than ever. The beauty of their union is intensified. A million memories are flooding their minds; some of these memories will make them laugh out loud, and others will triggers sobs from the depths of their soul.. All of this is normal, all of this is real and it needs to be understood and honored by the people around them.

If you know or love any of these young, newly widowed women and you want to support them in their grief,start by giving them room to speak of their men in the present tense and to express whatever memories come to their mind. They just want to talk about the love of their life, and they just need you to listen.

Just listen.

The sudden death of the bone of your bone and the flesh of your flesh causes a tearing that is a unique and nearly unbearable experience. And when it comes without warning, there is no way to prepare. Remember, these women were texting, talking to, and kissing their men hours before their souls left their bodies. There was no goodbye other than the “See you tonight” kind that we all say every day, because we always believe we will see them later. They didn’t know it was the last conversation, the last smile or wink, or the last time they would make love.

When your entire world turns upside down, God’s grace puts you in a strange bubble called “shock” – it is the natural reaction to severe trauma. That bubble is how these women were able to function for their children, have the presence of mind to answer a million questions, and even speak with perfect eloquence at their husband’s funeral. This bubble allows them to comfort those around them and assure their little ones that they are still a family and mommy is still right here.

I remember sitting there listening to all the people crying at my husband’s funeral, and all I could do was rest my head on my dad’s shoulder and breathe. Part of me knew it was real and that he was dead, but in my heart I still believed I would talk to John about all this when we were alone in our bedroom later that day. I told him everything, why would I not tell him about this?  

That is the thing.

The worst thing you can imagine has imploded your life and the lives of your children and the one person you always run to for support, understanding, security and love is lying before you in a casket. He can’t talk to you, hold you, or provide the support and and comfort you need when you need it the most. Suddenly, your best friend, your lover, the father of your children is gone and you are on your own.

There is nowhere to go with that. Nowhere.

Well meaning, kind people will say all sorts of things to a young widow. I know they are trying to help, but some words do more harm than good. God never rushes us through our grief, in fact, He walks with us in our pain. He knows we will find Him there, and His voice will be louder and stronger than ever before. God never says our pain is not real. If you don’t know what to do or say try, “I am so sorry, I love you and I am here.” That is all.

We minimize the loss of a young widow when we use words like, “at least.”  

“At least you had him for x amount of years.”

“At least you know he is with the Lord.”

“At least you know he is not in pain.”

The second someone said “at least” to me 23 years ago was the moment I stopped hearing any of the words that followed. You can’t remove the depth of the loss of a spouse by trying to throw a silver lining in the face of a woman whose world has just been shattered.

If you know any of these women, if you love them, if you really desire to be a good friend to them, then listen carefully.

Right now, their refrigerators are stuffed with more casseroles than they could ever eat. In fact, chances are pretty good that your friend has no appetite and sleep is likely erratic and restless.

Right now, your friend the new widow has inboxes and mail boxes overflowing with encouragement and love. Right now, their phones are full of heart emojis and Bible verses, their homes are full of flowers and strangers are buying gifts for their children.

Your friend has amazed you with her strength; you are in awe of her presence and her faith.

Six months, one year, five years from now, she will still be that woman you admire, but remember your life has returned to normal, and her normal will never be the same again. The casserole dishes will be returned empty, the cards will stop coming, the flowers will die and she will be expected to be fine, to have moved on, to have healed, either because of time or because of faith.

In truth, when everyone else has moved on is about the time your friend’s new reality is starting to set in.  

Yes, your friend is amazingly strong, and your friend is also going to have days of anger, nights of loneliness, and moments of screaming into her pillow so her kids can’t hear her. That is all part of grief, it is all the process of pain, and you can’t do anything to skip that for her. It is the very process that brings the healing, it is every tear that she sheds where she will find more of the Father’s heart.  

God is not afraid of her anger; He does not turn His face away when the questions come or when the hurt and confusion feel bigger than her faith.

If you love or care for a new, young widow, love her the way she needs to be loved, not the way you think she needs to be loved. Ask her what she needs and just keep showing up. At the same time, release her from the expectation of returning phone calls or texts; that can just be more pressure when she is exhausted.

It has been 23 years for me since the last “goodbye” that I did not know was the last anything. I have learned so much, I have grown up, I married an amazing man, blended two families, had another baby, buried a treasured son, and built a beautiful life.

I didn’t think I could survive the death of my husband; I had no idea how to be a single mother, and I could not see anything but my pain and my children’s suffering.  

I found God in my grief. I have cried more tears than I could ever count; I have screamed, punched the air and held traumatized children. I have also I found true compassion for others and strength I didn’t know I had. And 23 years later, I am still here.