Alone through Death


Most people who lose their marriage companion through death discover that they are able to make adjustments and assume responsibilities that they had previously thought were impossible. They may also find that the routines of daily life are more easily managed than they had anticipated.

But until one has had this experience, he cannot fully realize the emptiness, the void, that is present when a choice companion is no longer there to share time, experiences, plans, disappointments, and decisions. Children can consume a good deal of one’s time, and friends can help, but no one can really take the place of a marriage companion.

Because death is generally such an unwelcome event, most of us do not make adequate preparation for it. However, those who can talk intelligently about what they would like to have done when they pass away not only demonstrate an element of maturity but also relieve the loved one who remains of many decisions during a time of emotional trauma.

The intensity of the bereavement crisis for the survivor is largely determined by the length of time the couple has been married, the quality of the relationship that they were able to achieve, the number and ages of children that may be still dependent upon the remaining parent, the age of the individual, and the financial, social, and emotional resources available. All of these factors significantly affect the magnitude of the adjustments to be made by the survivors.

If the death of a loved one comes suddenly or unexpectedly, the immediate reaction is usually one of disbelief: “It can’t be true; you must be mistaken,” or “Are you sure?” These common reactions are accompanied or immediately followed by a numbing effect, during which time the person does not fully comprehend the impact that this loss will have upon his life.

Even if certain plans and instructions have been left by the departed loved one, numerous decisions still must be made regarding funeral and burial arrangements. Sometimes it may be necessary to relocate geographically. Decisions about business, professional, or vocational responsibilities must be made; and the concern and help of many friends and relatives, although usually only for a brief period of time, must be acknowledged. All of this is compounded considerably if no plans or preparations have been made for such an occurrence.

Sometimes after a death serious feelings of guilt or remorse are felt, and these may linger on for months or even years. The remaining spouse may feel responsible in some way for the death of his companion. For example, one husband who was driving at the time of an automobile accident in which his wife was killed felt that if he had been more careful, it would not have happened, and that he was responsible not only for her death and the loss of his companion, but also for depriving the children of the presence of their mother.

Another woman, who was having a problem with one of her children at home, called her husband at work and asked him if he could come to assist. He was killed in an accident on the way home. She felt that if she had managed the problem herself and had not asked him to come, the accident would not have happened.

Some persons have mistakenly felt that the loss of their loved one was the result of their being taken by God as a punishment to the remaining spouse, who had not been living as righteously as he should.

Others who have lost loved ones may torment themselves by trying to find explanations for their loss. The answers they find are frequently related to their religious understanding, the depth of their convictions, their skill in rationalizing, and their need to have answers for all of life’s consequences. Friends and relatives usually feel free to provide answers and interpretations, but these don’t always provide encouragement to the mourner.

An individual who is experiencing feelings of guilt and continued remorse should seek help from a bishop and/or a professional person who can assist and provide guidance in working through the problems. While there may be justification sometimes for such feelings, the issue should be resolved so that one’s future is not mortgaged to the past.

The desire to help someone who has lost a companion is common, but knowing how best to extend that help is not so widely understood. We sometimes wonder whether we should avoid the subject. If it is brought up by ourselves or someone else, many of us are not sure how we should deal with it. In most instances the best rule to follow is to let the bereaved person determine whether or not he wishes to talk about the matter. If he does wish to talk about it, then you can probably extend the most help by being a good listener. Too often, instead of listening, the “helpful friend” feels a compulsion to share his experiences or those of someone else he has known, which doesn’t really help the bereaved person.

If the survivor can set the pace and can determine when and if the issue is to be discussed and for how long and in what context, then he probably will have the kind of experience he needs and is seeking. If he wants advice, counsel, or the benefit of your experience, let him ask for it. In such a case, respond briefly; and if he wants to know more, let him pursue it.

It may be that what he needs and wants most is time to be alone to reflect, to relive pleasant memories, to work through in his own mind various alternatives that are available to him, and to select the one that seems most appropriate and desirable. It may be difficult for him to do this when he has the responsibility of entertaining a friend or relative. It may merely complicate his task if others are there sharing their experiences and giving advice and counsel.

Without intending to, we may give the impression that if our help or advice is not accepted, we will be hurt or offended. In most instances it is best to extend an offer to help and then to give it when and if it is needed and wanted. At the time of death, friends and relatives are more available to share their attention, their time, and their sympathy; but generally they return quickly to their normal activities, and in two or three weeks the one who is experiencing bereavement is left alone. That is usually the time when he most needs and wants to talk to someone.

It is common for a person who has lost a loved one to reflect upon past times they have shared and to perhaps regret that there was not a more open show of affection or that thoughtful little things he would like to have done were postponed until it was too late.

Reflecting on the loss of a companion can provide a stimulus to help one carefully evaluate his life and sometimes reorder his priorities. Often we don’t appreciate things as much as we should until they are lost or until their existence is threatened.

Once a person goes through the process of evaluating his life and perhaps changing his priorities and establishing resolutions or making new commitments, he finds that it serves as a means of helping him improve the quality of his life. This is not a matter in which one makes up for deficiencies of the past or can do something for the loved one who is departed, but it does mean that he can make the remaining days and years of his life more meaningful and useful so that he is better prepared to meet his loved one when they are reunited for the rest of eternity.

A person’s faith is often tested in the experience of bereavement. Even a strong testimony is put to the test when one faces a crisis such as death, and it may not be as strong as had been supposed. Some people blame God or become bitter toward the Church because they cannot see any logical or justifiable reason for their loved one’s death. Others find that they have a greater resource to call upon to assist them in a time of crisis than they realized. Those who are close to the Lord and who call upon him find a deeper meaning than ever before in the beatitude that states, “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.” (Matt. 5:4.)

An outpouring of love from God, family, and friends may not only sustain one during a difficult period; it may also strengthen one’s testimony and deepen his understanding of the gospel. He may realize more fully that God does answer prayers and that he does assist us in facing the challenges and tasks that confront us.

The competence with which one deals with crises such as death depends primarily upon adaptability and flexibility. A crisis tests a person’s inner resources and those outside himself that will enable him to cope with his responsibilities and opportunities. He may discover a deeper understanding of the statement of the Lord to Joseph Smith, who, in a period of trial and suffering, was told, “… know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.” (D&C 122:7.) And during the Prophet’s same period of confinement in Liberty Jail the Lord said, “My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; And then if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high. …” (D&C 121:7–8.)

Being separated by death does not carry the social stigma that sometimes accompanies divorce, but it presents many of the same challenges, and it requires some of the same adjustments. With the loss of a marriage partner, an adjustment must be made in a person’s pattern of reciprocal love and affection. There is an added responsibility of trying to fulfill the roles of both parents, and there is a need to find informal social groups for one who is now single.

While most married friends will continue to include the widowed person in social activities, it is not always easy for the single person to feel comfortable in such situations. More often it is necessary to make new friends within a different social circle. However, continuing one’s association with previously established married friends is much easier in the case of bereavement than in the case of divorce. Often in the latter instance, friends feel the need to choose sides when there has been serious conflict between those who have been divorced.

Few women who are widowed are financially independent, so major adjustments may include obtaining employment or returning to school in order to be trained for employment. Arrangements must be made for the care of any children at home while the mother is working. Thus, it is important for couples who are still together to make plans for the future so that if necessary, the woman can be relatively financially independent, at least until the children are grown. It would be wise for all married couples to seek competent financial counseling on these matters.

Another major responsibility of one who suddenly finds himself in the situation of being a single parent is to adjust to changing roles in the family. It is not easy and in some ways not possible for one person to be both a father and a mother. Most of the physical needs of children at home, at school, or at church can be met or arranged for by a single parent. However, trying to meet the emotional needs of children is a different matter and sometimes results in undesirable consequences for both child and parent.

Children who are in their late teens or older usually have established their own identity and are able to face the reality of the loss of a parent with considerable poise and maturity. Younger children, however, need a great deal of help in interpreting the event and in making the adjustment. While children are usually very resilient and deserve more credit than they are often given, it is important for them to have both male and female models with whom they can identify and relate. It would be beneficial for the children if a close friend, relative, home teacher, or youth group leader could serve occasionally in the role of a substitute parent.

A widowed parent must not seek to selfishly and unrealistically meet his own needs through a child or through his children. There are many examples of this folly: the widow who turns to her son and wrecks him with her emotional demands; the widower who expects the oldest daughter of the family to take over the role of being a mother for the other children. (To some extent this experience could be a growing one for a girl in her late teens, but it has the danger of being perpetuated to the exclusion of possible educational experiences away from home, of healthy relationships with persons her own age, and of her marrying at an appropriate time.)

The single parent should take frequent inventory of his needs and those of his children who are still at home and determine whether these needs are being met with a reasonable degree of success and without undue imposition on any family member. Some single parents mistakenly make sacrifices for what they believe will be in the best interests of their children.

In order for a person to remain emotionally, physically, and spiritually healthy and to be very much alive and involved in the world, it is also necessary that some of his own needs be met. The parent who is always sacrificing for his children may become an unhappy, poorly adjusted person who is not able to function effectively.

Remarriage is a possibility for almost all single parents and is highly probable for many, but there are some differences between the widow and the widower. Remarriage for the widower is the respectable and even the expected thing. Twice as many widowers as widows remarry during the first five years after their spouse’s death, and this ratio maintains for the next nine or ten years. Whether this is due to a greater opportunity for men to contract a second marriage or to a fundamental difference between the sexes is difficult to determine. Certainly a higher proportion of widows to widowers is a determining factor in the smaller number of widows who remarry.

It also seems to be more acceptable and more common for a man to marry a woman substantially younger than he is or who has not previously been married than it is for a widow to marry someone younger or one who has not been previously married.

Another factor that may prevail is that a woman may be more willing to accept the emotional responsibilities of helping rear another woman’s children than her male counterpart would be in a similar situation.

A father with several young children who have lost their mother may feel that it is urgent to find a woman who can come into the home and be a mother to his children and help him with the responsibilities of rearing them. This sometimes puts pressure on a widower to move into marriage more quickly and less cautiously than he should. While the immediate needs of the children are important, he still should be choosing wisely not only a temporary mother for his children but a companion for himself.

It is taken for granted in many social groups that a young widow will remarry rather quickly. Many friends and relatives are quite anxious to assume the role of matchmaker, making frequent offers to arrange for introductions to eligible marriage partners. Conversely, some relatives may communicate to a son-in-law or a daughter-in-law that he or she would be disloyal to the family or would not be paying proper respect to the departed spouse by marrying again or by remarrying within a short period of time.

Some people find it difficult, if not impossible, to enter into another marriage relationship because they feel that they are being untrue to their departed companion. Each individual has the responsibility and should have the privilege of making the decision of whether or not he will marry, but it is certainly not a decision to be made hastily and without careful consideration.

It is not unusual to idolize the first mate. This is more true of women than of men. The idolized image of a dead mate, an image to which no living man could measure up, is an important deterrent to remarriage for many widows. Such idolization can create either a barrier for remarriage or serious problems in case of remarriage.

The single parent with children who considers remarriage must also cope with their feelings and attitudes. Usually, at first, children will not want their parents to remarry. As they grow older, however, and as the time extends from the loss of the other parent, they may be more amenable to the thought of their father or mother marrying again. Each parent who loses a companion should consider the possibility of remarriage, with the criteria being the best interest of all concerned.

Many widows and widowers will not have the opportunity to remarry. However, for them life can still be rich, full, and rewarding. Each day presents many opportunities for self-growth, for service to others, for increasing the Godlike qualities for which we are striving, for preparing ourselves to be reunited with our companion and returning to the presence of our Father in heaven.

One of the realities of losing a loved one through death is experiencing feelings of loneliness. Most people do not understand the phenomenon of loneliness; they usually try to escape from it rather than capitalize upon it. Loneliness is neither good nor bad, but is a point of intense and timeless awareness of the self, a beginning that initiates totally new sensitivities and awarenesses and that can result in bringing a person deeply in touch with his own existence and with others in a more fundamental sense than has ever occurred before.

Experiencing solitude gives one the opportunity to draw upon untouched capacities and resources. It can bring into awareness new dimensions of self, new beauty, new power for human compassion, and a reverence for the precious nature of each breathing moment.

In solitary moments, man experiences truth, beauty, nature, reverence, humanity. Loneliness enables one to return to a life with others with renewed hope and vitality, with fuller dedication, with a deeper desire to come to a healthy resolution of problems and issues involving others, and with the possibility and hope for a rich, true life with others. Our task, then, is to learn to care for our own loneliness and suffering and for the loneliness and suffering of others. By this means, one can gain strength and growth in new directions to enhance his dignity, maturity, beauty, and capacity for tenderness and love.

President Spencer W. Kimball has written, “Being human we would expel from our lives, sorrow, distress, physical pain, and mental anguish and assure ourselves of continual ease and comfort. But if we closed the doors upon such, we might be evicting our greatest friends and benefactors. Suffering can make saints of people as they learn patience, long-suffering and self-mastery. …” (Improvement Era, “Tragedy or Destiny,” March 1966, p. 178.)

The Latter-day Saint understanding of eternal marriage is one of the most important sources of comfort for one who has lost a companion and who feels worthy of having the marriage continue for eternity. The death is looked upon as a temporary separation, and one can look forward to being reunited with his loved one. While death is almost always an unwelcomed event, it is much more tolerable when one has the assurance of being reunited with his loved ones.

Death separates some who have not been sealed for eternity. A surviving spouse, in such a case, has the opportunity of preparing for an eternal marriage with the departed one or with some other worthy individual.

We no doubt knew before we were born that we were coming into a world that would include joys and sorrows, pain and comfort, peace and hardship, health and sickness, success and disappointment. We knew also that someday we would die. If we accepted the privilege of coming to this world with these risks involved, it is our duty now to accept with faith consequences that are beyond our control and take hope in the reunion that will surely come.

Dr. Porter, high councilor in the Brigham Young University Fifth Stake, is dean of the BYU College of Family Living. Sister Porter passed away in 1963; they are the parents of four children, three of whom are now married.