No one ever plans for marriage to turn out this way: one partner gone, one left alone. And yet, losing a marriage partner is one of the growth experiences of mortal life that will be unavoidable for many who marry.
Death never seems timely to those of us living through mortality, whether it takes a vibrant young wife of only a few months or a beloved, aged husband of many decades. For most survivors, the overwhelming, inescapable feeling of the experience is aloneness. Family and friends may offer loving comfort. A tender Heavenly Father may answer many prayers, sending the warmth of his Spirit to help and lift and console. And yet, mortals who have enjoyed the loving companionship of marriage sometimes look upon the loss of that companionship as an unrelenting burden and a kind of barrier that prevents them from partaking fully of life.
Yet, the witness of the scriptures, the counsel of Church leaders, and the examples of many faithful widows and widowers teach that this season of life without one’s beloved spouse can be a time of fulfillment and growth, a time to add spiritual depth that will enrich an eternal relationship.
Widows and widowers have needs that deserve attention from family, friends, and priesthood leaders. All of them can contribute, enriching the lives of others. Although they can be found in every adult age group, undoubtedly the majority of widows and widowers in the Church are members who face their later years without a companion.
Probably there are few Latter-day Saints who do not have regular contact with one or more elderly widows and widowers. Among the nearly 4.5 million Church members in the United States and Canada, for example, there are approximately 80,000 widows and more than 13,000 widowers over age fifty-five. Information furnished by a representative group of these members paints an interesting picture.
Naturally, the proportion of widows and widowers among Church members increases with age, though men are more likely than women to have a living spouse when they are older. Of LDS men in the 65–74 age group, 5 percent are widowers, while 26 percent of women in the same age group are widows. Among those 75 and older, 52 percent of the women are widows while a little less than 19 percent of the men are widowers.
Only about 17 percent of widowed LDS women and men over the age of fifty-five are in the work force. But the widowed men and women are far more likely than married members—26 percent as compared to 5 percent—to be living below poverty guidelines set by the U. S. government. Furthermore, the widowed women are more than twice as likely as the married women (48 percent compared to 23 percent) to have health problems.
Faith remains a strong force in the life of older Latter-day Saints who have lost their companions. Attendance at Church meetings may be more difficult for those who live alone and are in poor health or without transportation. Nevertheless, 83 percent of the widowers and 88 percent of the widows surveyed say their beliefs are very important to them; those figures match the percentages for older married men and women. High percentages of the widows and widowers also report that they pray personally every day, or several times a week, and that they pay a full tithing. Nearly half of the older widows and widowers report that they attend Church meetings weekly; about a third of the women and a fourth of the men report that they have callings.
Obviously, widowed older members have much to offer in the way of faith and experience, but many of them also have special challenges in their lives.
Jesus himself set the example of concern for the widow when, in agony on the cross, he commended his apparently widowed mother to the care of his beloved Apostle, John. (See John 19:25–27; see also “Joseph,” Bible Dictionary, p. 717.) Earlier, Jesus’ raising of the dead son of the widow at Nain (see Luke 7:11–15) had been both compassionate and practical; he had not only restored the woman’s beloved child but had also blessed her with a protector and a provider for her old age.
The care of the widows and fatherless has always been a practical concern of the Lord’s people. (See, for example, Deut. 14:29 and Deut. 24:19–21; 1 Tim. 5:3–5; James 1:27; 2 Ne. 20:1–2.) Section 83 of the Doctrine and Covenants offers this instruction: “And the storehouse shall be kept by the consecrations of the church; and widows and orphans shall be provided for, as also the poor.” (D&C 83:6.)
None of this, however, supposes that those who have lost their spouses will simply be passive receivers of the word of God or of the benefits of membership in his church.
The story of Elijah and the widow at Zarephath (see 1 Kgs. 17:8–24) is instructive. The Lord recognized the widow’s willingness to serve; she was evidently a doer of the word. (See James 1:22.) Her faith and obedience brought blessings upon her whole household. The restoration of her son to life provided not only a divine witness of Elijah’s heavenly commission but also another symbol of the spiritual reality that God will raise his children to eternal life as they heed the words of his prophets.
The history of the Church is replete with stories of valiant pioneers, doers of the word, who continued on in faith and obedience after losing a beloved companion. Mary Fielding Smith, a resourceful, dynamic woman, is but one example. The widow of Hyrum Smith, she was the mother of one Church president (Joseph F. Smith) and grandmother of another (Joseph Fielding Smith). Told that she would be a drag on her pioneer emigrant company because she was underequipped, she, with her children, nevertheless beat the leader of the company to the Salt Lake Valley. (See Susan Arrington Madsen, “Smith, Mary Fielding,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow, 4 vols., New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1992, 3:1358–59.)
Examples like these can teach us that the virtues of spirituality, self-reliance, and charity—along with all of those other qualities fostered by faith and obedience to the gospel—are not dependent upon marriage, and they do not die with a spouse.
In the fall of 1989, President Ezra Taft Benson spoke to elderly members during the opening session of the Church’s semiannual general conference. (See Ensign, Nov. 1989, pp. 4–8.) He offered the assurance that “you have so much to live for” and suggested a number of ways in which every older member can make life more rewarding.
He addressed a part of his talk to older individuals who have lost their spouses, reassuring them that they need not feel useless or alone. He promised those who would seek out opportunities to help others that they would find healing from the pain of loss and the dread of being alone. “The way to feel better about your own situation is to improve someone else’s circumstances.” (P. 6.)
He called on priesthood leaders “to be sensitive to the Spirit of our Father in Heaven in assessing and meeting the spiritual, physical, emotional, and financial needs of the elderly,” and to continue to give them callings “in which they can use their reservoirs of wisdom and counsel.” (P. 7.)
Elder Charles Didier of the Presidency of the Seventy serves as executive director of the Priesthood Department, which has responsibility for single adults in the Church. He notes that widows and widowers sometimes tend to isolate themselves when they lose their spouse. Where they have been married in the temple, they may feel that they are not truly single members, since the separation from their spouse is, after all, only temporary. Yet they no longer feel comfortable at many functions where members go as couples, so they may avoid both singles and mixed activities that would be rewarding. The problem of their withdrawal can be compounded when others mentally put them in a different category and do not help them fit in.
Keeping a heart open to the good in the world is important for widows and widowers, Elder Didier says, since shutting others out only compounds the pain of loss. “Keep living,” he advises. “Don’t bury yourself with your companion. We say there is life after death. Well, there is life after death for those who survive, too.”
He suggests several ways in which widowed members can stay alive to the world around them.
Take advantage of opportunities to serve a mission, to serve in the temple, to serve in family history work. Missionary service not only helps spread gospel blessings but also offers a fine example for children and grandchildren. Regular temple attendance with family members is “a wonderful gift” to them.
Find ways to serve others individually. “Make a difference in the life of someone else,” Elder Didier says. “You make history when you serve people, when you live for people.”
Share history. If you’re part of the older generation, you may be the only source of certain information on family history and traditions. You can be sure what you know is passed on by preparing your personal history and sharing it.
Stay close to children and young people. They help keep your perspective young, and you can share with them wisdom born of experience.
It is true that there are problems in being alone after many years with a beloved companion; the experiences of LDS widows and widowers show that faithful living does not at some point magically insulate members from the challenges of life. But it is also true that there is solace in service to others and that there is much happiness in the world for those who open themselves to it.
“Open the windows, not just the door,” Elder Didier urges. Breathe. Be part of everything in the world that brings true joy.
After all, Nephi’s teaching that men and women “are, that they might have joy” (2 Ne. 2:25) does not limit that joy to some future time. The following articles show how some widows and widowers are finding it now as they face the challenges of this season in their lives, healing and growing within, and reaching outward to enrich others.