The death of a husband is a sorrowful, personal experience. There are ways to sublimate such a separation or to take the sting out of it. Even the passage of time can blunt death’s sharp edges. But only ultimate reunion can assuage it. The partners in a celestial marriage know they’ll be reunited some day. So it’s more than mere comfort that’s needed when the trial of supreme loneliness comes; it is direction for living without being more lonely than one can bear, a method for arriving at peace and keeping hope in one’s heart.
Each woman must rise to the challenge in her own way. Here is how the wives of deceased General Authorities have come to terms with sorrow and how they go about making life meaningful and rich.
“My world seemed shattered when my husband died suddenly in his sleep,” recalls Elva Cowley, widow of Elder Matthew Cowley of the Council of the Twelve. “I had always loved the out-of-doors, but even the sky seemed dim to me on a sunny day. I’d look at people and wonder how they could walk down the street smiling.”
That was nearly twenty years ago, and Sister Cowley has lived to say, “Death of a loved one is sweet compared to some of the things people go through in life. I learned this soon enough while working at the Primary Children’s Hospital—the job that was the beginning of my finding joy in life again.”
Shortly after Elder Cowley’s funeral, Sister Elva faced up to the fact that she must not sit and mope and feel sorry for herself any longer. She had an adopted son to rear and a life to do something with. She accepted an executive position at the Primary Children’s Hospital, where she quickly noted differences in how parents of stricken children deal with heartbreak and death.
“Some people can take things, learn a lesson from them, but some just buckle under. I remember the day a young mother came in with the most pitifully deformed baby I’d ever seen and said to me, ‘I know that my Heavenly Father loves me because he knew he could send this little spirit to me and that I would love it and care for it.’ Well,” Sister Cowley continues, “that was the day I began counting my blessings. Such a store of them—proving that the Lord loved me, too. I knew I must not give in to the negativism that Satan tempts us with.”
The Cowleys were great collectors. Their apartment is filled with interesting items from all over the world. There is the special display holding Elder Cowley’s amazing collection of Royal Doulton jugs and unusual items from the Maori culture he came to love during his New Zealand assignments. Every trip they took touring missions and visiting the Saints around the world is vividly recalled now by Sister Cowley as she looks at each piece in terms of the place and the circumstances under which it was obtained.
“At first it hurt to have these things around me, but now it’s a comfort. They are like a diary, a record of our sacred, special experiences with the Saints. Being alone isn’t so dreadful when you have a lot to remember.”
Sister Cowley, a petite and pretty, young-looking woman, believes in keeping busy. She is a temple worker and is associated with the diamond department of a department store. “If you hit the bottom of the barrel, the demands of a busy life can force you to the top again,” she declares.
“There is only one way to conquer the terrible agony of being a widow, and that’s to live the gospel; then the Lord will give you his peace.” Thus speaks Anna Marie Critchlow, whose husband, William J., Jr., was an Assistant to the Council of the Twelve until his death in 1968.
The Critchlows had a relationship of 44 years that was like something out of a fine romantic novel. They had been sweethearts since the day they first met at a Sunday School outing when she was 17 and already a stake genealogical expert.
A lifetime of midday meals together—just the two of them because they enjoyed each other’s company so much—is one of the things Sister Critchlow misses most now. But there are their three children and many grandchildren rallying about her to see to her every need and delight.
Sister Critchlow is a serene, queenly woman whose gentleness and refinement are matched by her appreciation of the gifts of the priesthood. Says she, “All my life I’ve been thankful for the priesthood, and now that I’m alone it is even more valuable. I urge the woman whose heart has been torn by separation from her beloved husband to find help when she needs it through the healing ordinances of the priesthood. The loneliness is still there,” she adds, “but your heart is at peace. I recall when I was just nine years old and suffering from spinal meningitis; the doctors said I’d never walk, talk, or see again if I did recover from that severe illness. I learned then that priesthood power is greater than the finest physician. I was given a blessing, and the problems the doctors had predicted for me were wiped away. I have always turned to the priesthood in my time of need.”
She seldom misses a general conference session or a Brigham Young University devotional broadcast on television, and she always goes to Sunday School to learn yet more about the gospel, because “you can’t live it if you don’t know it.”
“If ever I am tempted to feel sorry for myself, I think of my grandmother Jeppson, who was left a widow at age 42 with 11 unmarried children and no welfare or insurance money to help,” Sister Critchlow recalls. How great a web of comfort may be drawn out of another’s heart and into our own, especially from one who is an example of the believer!
The title of the book Ida Murdock Kirkham prepared and had published just three months after the death of her husband, President Oscar A. Kirkham of the First Council of the Seventy, is Say the Good Word. It could also be the title of their life story.
“Whether in disappointment or widowhood, one must remember to put oneself last and bring joy into the hearts of others. It is the core of the gospel,” explains Sister Kirkham. Her husband died 13 years ago, and she has carried on their tradition of sharing scriptures and inspirational thoughts at every opportunity. Writing a special scripture on a little card and sending it to a friend in need has brought help to many, many people.
She is a great and courageous lady who honored her husband’s wishes to “keep the good word alive”; with the help of her daughter, Grace Burbidge, she began the collection of thoughts for the book immediately following President Kirkham’s funeral. Waiting until one feels happier, or is over the grief, isn’t as wise as spreading sunshine, according to Sister Kirkham. “Then you’ll feel some of your own.” And in her recent serious illness, back came the “bread cast upon the water”—flowers, cards, and countless friends.
During their life together the Kirkhams were both busy—he the beloved missionary and Scout leader and she a president of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers. She serves still on the DUP advisory board. This common interest in serving and “sharing the good word” bound them together firmly.
Shortly before his death, the family gathered for a celebration of an anniversary. Sister Kirkham had prepared a scripture card, and President Kirkham led them in a family prayer and gave a father’s blessing. This sacred memory is remembered by this scripture written on the card: “The Lord bless thee, and keep thee: The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.” (Num. 6:24–26.)
Alice Thornley Evans, wife of the late Elder Richard L. Evans of the Council of the Twelve, held up an impressively worn Triple Combination and said, “Let me read to you from Ether 12:6: ‘… wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.’ Losing the husband you’ve loved for so long is the ultimate trial of one’s faith, I now know. This matter of faith is all you have to fall back on at such a time. We’ve taught our four sons the importance of an abiding faith. I’ve given little talks and borne my testimony about faith. Then, out of the blue, a year ago, my big test came with Richard’s death. The most helpful thing in this tremendously difficult period of adjustment has been my sure knowledge that Richard, like Christ, lives! I don’t know what people do without this faith.”
Theirs is a home of sweet spirit. It is full of books, music, and the fragrance of good things to eat. The telephone rings constantly with friends “checking on Alice,” and grandchildren or busy sons drop by for a snack and a visit. In the midst of great sorrow, there is an aura of love and faith that comforts the friends who call to comfort.
Richard L. Evans was an important man in the world as well as the Church. His “beloved Alice” had given up a promising career as a violinist to support him in his pressing assignments. Now hers is the task of dealing with 90 big boxes of his personal files. Publishers and recording companies press with deadlines. And though a heart is sad, the work must be done.
“Work is a blessing,” counsels Alice Evans. “And ‘faith without works is dead,’ as the scriptures say. One doesn’t merely speak of beliefs; one applies them to life’s problems. Like Paul said, ‘I can do all things through Christ Jesus who strengtheneth me.’ So when Richard died and my life-style changed, I picked up the pieces and moved on to something else.”
A General Authority and his wife are in a position to see that people have problems—even people who look as if they have the world by the proverbial tail. So Sister Alice Evans spends a good part of her time sharing her marvelous warmth and goodness in careful concern for people with problems, especially widows and the single woman. “When I think of the circle of love I’ve lived in,” comments Sister Evans, “and compare my loneliness now to that of the older, unmarried woman, I know that her problem is worse than mine. I suppose there are many ways we have our faith tested. It is up to each of us to meet that trial of our faith.”
“When I was a young girl I’d stand at the dishpan and warble,” laughed wonderful LaRue Longden, former member of the YWMIA general presidency and wife of the late Elder John Longden, Assistant to the Council of the Twelve. “Mother would listen for a time and then invariably she’d call out to me, ‘Sing a fast song, LaRue,’ and I’d try to oblige. It’s as though I can hear her saying that to me now when I get feeling depressed or terribly alone. You may cry sometime at night, but when you’re with people and the sun is up and life is moving on, you should act like a happy, believing Saint. Besides, I wouldn’t dare mourn too much or Jack would haunt me!”
This delightful “lady of light” has won friends and admiration during her life of leadership because of her positive attitude and sparkling wit. She is no stranger to death, but she learned long ago that activity and attitude are the secrets of survival in times of personal tragedy.
Her first bout with death came when Elder Longden was a young bishop and she was president of the ward MIA. Their first child was just three and desperately ill in the hospital. The Longdens were on their knees when the call came telling them of her death. At the funeral Sister Longden remembers the wise counsel Elder Adam S. Bennion of the Council of the Twelve gave. He said that there are two roads one can take at a time of losing a loved one. One has a gate marked Despair; it swings open easily. The other gate is marked peace, and one has to struggle with it to open it. The first road if taken leads to despondency and bitterness. The other, harder one is the way of peace, character, and happiness.
“After that funeral, all the MIA people, holding flowers, formed an aisle, and I, their president, had to walk past them. I knew then they were watching me and I had to five what I’d been teaching. I began then to heed Elder Bennion’s counsel.”
Sister Longden nursed her mother for long months before she died of cancer. Just before her death her mother said, “LaRue, lock one of your giggles in my coffin.” She wanted no tragedy made out of her going back to her Heavenly Father. Some years later, the Longdens’ daughter, Gail Hickman, mother of two young sons, was stricken with polio and fought the battle to restored health with the help of the priesthood and her mother’s good care. “You begin to understand a bit about the plan of life when you yearn for a loved one, fasting, praying, searching the scriptures. It is wise to dwell only on the many good things that happen then, too, like the outpouring of the Spirit and the great kindnesses of friends.
“Jack’s favorite subject for his sermons was on self-mastery. I used to think I knew something about the subject, until he died,” adds Sister Longden.
“Self-mastery is making yourself do something you ought to do whether you want to or not. It’s singing a fast song so your troubles can’t catch up with you,” she concludes.
“‘We ask for strength, and God gives us difficulties, which make us strong; we plead for courage, and God gives danger to overcome; we ask for favors, and God gives us opportunities.’ That’s a quotation by Jule Johnson that I keep here by my calendar,” says Sister Madelaine B. Wirthlin. “Now that I am alone I know the truth of that quotation more than ever. It is very motivating to me. I believe I am striving harder today to learn, to grow in character, and to live better than I ever have in my life before. I know Bishop Wirthlin is preparing a place for me, and I want to be ready.”
She is the widow of Bishop Joseph L. Wirthlin, former Presiding Bishop of the Church. They have five children and 27 grandchildren. All those who are married have been to the temple. All of the children have filled missions and have earned their doctorate or master’s degrees. “You can’t deviate from gospel principles in rearing your family, and you can’t deviate in meeting the trials of death and loneliness,” says Sister Wirthlin.
A vibrant, strong woman, she is planning a trip to Israel this year. She believes that since there is no recall from this test of separation, one has to adjust, so one might as well do it gracefully. She’s as busy now as she has ever been and is anxiously engaged in many a good cause.
“I have no fear of death. I believe I understand the gospel and encourage all I meet to search its truths. I look forward to the reunion with my husband. I waited for him while he filled his first mission. I have waited countless times for him over the years of his total commitment to church service. I can wait a little longer now. I miss him terribly but I am not mourning. I am a strong believer that if we live righteously, the blessings that are promised us here and hereafter will be realized.
“I appreciate the devotion my husband had to his calling and to the counsel of the Lord. I sustained him always and now he sustains me, I’m sure, while I am anxiously striving to improve myself, help my friends and family when they need me, and be supportive of good, vital causes in our land. Isn’t this God’s plan? Death, in and of itself, may seem final for a time, but looking beyond, one sees the whole scheme of things. Our duty is to prepare to meet our Maker ourselves. And what a reunion!”
“My husband always told me that if I’d try to live by one particular scripture, everything would always be all right with me. It’s from Doctrine and Covenants 88:67: ‘And if your eye be single to my glory, your whole bodies shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness in you; and that body which is filled with light comprehendeth all things.’ That scripture gives us the key to solving all our problems. If we keep close to God there can be no darkness in our spirits nor misunderstanding of his purposes.”
The widow of Elder George F. Richards of the Council of the Twelve (who is the father of our present Elder LeGrand Richards), Sister Betsy H. Richards, isn’t very well, but she keeps her spirits up by reading gospel literature mostly, though she likes good reading material of all kinds.
Alone since Elder Richards died in 1950, she enjoys visits from his family members and appreciates their great goodness to her. She has no fear of death nor does she feel bitterness in the plan that parts a husband and wife who love each other and who have come to depend upon each other. Rather, she values the opportunities of learning valuable lessons. And she often looks at the temple and thinks what a comfort the sacred ordinances performed there should be for any widow.
“If someone doesn’t understand the gospel and has been left alone by her husband’s death, she should surely study it and ask Heavenly Father’s help for proper understanding,” says Sister Richards in her pleasant Yorkshire accent. “I love the gospel—all of it. My spirit is lifted when I open my scriptures before talking with my Father in heaven. Death can be conquered by taking upon us the name of Christ, and his Spirit will pour out upon us and we’ll get that peace which passeth understanding.”
A quaint little lady in a very modernistic home, Sister Stayner Richards will be 89 years old this year. Her favorite spot is the easy chair next to the baby grand piano with a picture of her husband on it. “Lady Jane” (as she is known by her friends and family) sits like a figure in a painting surrounded by flourishing greens, a fine collection of books, and pictures of her “current missionaries.” She says, “I like to have many Church books near by because then I can pick up the one that can give me the help I need at the moment.” There are letters to write to the missionaries and visits from some of her devoted family. The talk is always of the gospel—some fascinating new truth she has learned that day in study or the baptism that one of the missionaries assisted with.
“People should share the truths of the gospel whether they are on missions or not. Even in their times of sorrow they should teach the gospel, because death can be the most spiritual experience of all. That way, you help others as well as yourself,” explains Sister Richards.
Here is an elect lady who is so involved in bringing the gospel and goodness into the lives of others that it never occurs to her to think about her own situation. Her daily prayer list is long because she watches closely after the needs of her loved ones and friends. She still bakes nut bread or a casserole to send to an ill neighbor, a widowed friend, or a newcomer to the block. And no one calls on her without being offered something to eat.
She is a culinary expert, and during their mission tour (when her husband was a mission president in Great Britain), she’d cook for as many as fifteen people each day in the cause of sharing the gospel. It was 1949, and England was recovering from a long war. Sister Richards would have to stand in various lines for long periods of time to get the necessary groceries. But with never a complaint she did her part to help her husband in his calling as mission president, as she had when he was stake president, bishop, and busy businessman. Later he became an Assistant to the Council of Twelve, serving until his death in 1953.
“I supported him during the years of his ‘trillions’ of meetings, and now I feel he is supporting me,” says Sister Richards. “Yes, he is very close to me. You know, heaven isn’t really very far.”
“President Moyle has been gone nine years and it doesn’t get any easier,” said Sister Henry D. Moyle, whose husband served in the First Presidency under President David O. McKay. “In fact, it gets harder—you just miss them so. But the Lord does send us the comfort of his Spirit to be with us, and when I am sitting alone thinking upon our most wonderful, rich life together or pondering a problem, I feel my husband close beside me and my heart is full.”
Alberta Moyle spoke of a powerful lesson she has learned these past nine years as she has looked back over their lifetime together and considered the blessings of today. “It is summed up in this scripture in Philippians 4:11: “… for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.”
President and Sister Moyle had the early aim of rearing a large, righteous, happy family. They have six children and 34 grandchildren. “They are wonderful people, these children and grandchildren,” said Sister Moyle. “I can see now the real wisdom Brother Moyle had in early encouragement and generous rewards for their achievement.”
The Moyles have been greatly blessed with material means and have been most generous in bringing joy to others by sharing and caring. Bread cast upon the water does indeed come back, and now a rich family heritage, the memories of a life of service, an attentive posterity, a rare collection of paintings and art treasures from the world over fill Sister Moyle’s life. These things, coupled with a firm testimony, sustain her.
“If you do your genealogy, you’ll never be lonely again,” instructs soft-spoken Margaret Wells. “I have friends I’ve never even met face to face that I’ve become acquainted with by doing research. And some of them died long before I was born!”
A widow since 1941, she began her service as a temple worker the year after her husband, Bishop John Wells of the Presiding Bishopric, died. “I feel I owe a debt to my ancestors who accepted the gospel and came to Utah. It is a choice experience and sweet satisfaction to do something for people that they can’t do for themselves.” She has four file drawers full of materials and nine exquisitely prepared family histories. “But the nicest thing I ever did was take care of my aged mother for seven years until she died, nearly 100 years of age!”
Something else that is helpful in loneliness is to “plan your days ahead of time so that you have something to look forward to or something to prepare for,” says Sister Wells, whose favorite hobby is drying flowers because they are “God’s creation.” In addition, she thinks keeping a “tidy” house and caring for one’s health are the obligations of every woman.
Sister Wells, who served for 27 years on the YWMIA general board and filled a mission for the Church, firmly believes that the way to happiness is to live on an even keel. “Don’t regret the past or dread the future. Life is to be lived with joy.” Her husband used to say to her, “Margaret, one of the things I love about you is you wake up happy every morning.” She believes this to be her responsibility, as it says in Ps. 118:24: “This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.”
Special days are often the most trying to a widow. A forgotten birthday or no Christmas surprise can be devastating to the best intentions of courage. Sister Wells has solved that problem for herself, too. “Every birthday and Christmas I buy myself a nice gift from John to me—something I know he’d want me to have. In 32 years I’ve never felt neglected,” she declares.
Since her release as a temple worker, Sister Wells has served in ward and stake genealogical programs. She goes the extra mile by helping couples and families complete their record sheets and then accompanying them to the temple. If they are lagging a bit she coaxes them along with. “Let me know when you are ready.”
People can rise to magnificent heights when the precious web of association is broken by death. For women of faith, perhaps only reminders are needed after all, when tears come unbidden. The gospel is true. The answers and hope are implicit in it if only we can see them.
But a weeping eye can never see.