There is no universal experience of widowhood. Both in the immediacy of death and as the surviving spouse moves forward through his or her grief, mourning is too deeply personal, and painful, for it to be generic. One truth generally applies: “[Widowhood] is a planet no one ever wants to live on,” says Ahava Ehrenpreis, the author of On My Own . . . But Not Alone: Practical advice and personal stories. Ehrenpreis wrote the book as a resource guide for other women going at it alone after she lost her own husband and discovered how unprepared she was to cope with the concomitant challenges.
No matter the circumstances of their loss or how their future unfolds, widows and widowers will always have one foot in what feels like an alternate world.
“We may have a family and friends and a meaningful job. We might be active in our shuls and Jewish community life. But at the end of the day, we go home and close our bedroom doors and we’re alone with our grief. It’s not what any of us expected. It’s what we pray never happens to anyone else,” reflects one widow from New York who wishes to remain anonymous. At the same time, she adds, “Our individual experiences and needs are not monolithic or one-dimensional, and we rarely want to be defined solely by our loss.”
Even as Jewish law paces the ritual stages of mourning, each widower or widow will proceed according to his or her own grief timeline. The initial trauma can also vary depending upon how a husband or wife passes away, whether suddenly or following a protracted illness. The couple’s ages and whether they have children living at home both come into play too, especially as the family copes in the immediate days after the death and seeks some degree of normalcy, though normal will have already taken on new meaning.
The real struggle begins when the last person has been menachem avel and the shivah house is left to echo in silence. Complex financial, legal, mental health, and social welfare challenges are among the harrowing obstacles a surviving spouse—and if there are children, now also a solo parent—faces during the grieving process, especially in the early stages. There’s a tidal wave of paperwork to contend with, torturous waits on hold with the bank, and the pressure of day-to-day obligations, from remembering to send in the mortgage payment to just getting out of bed.
Meanwhile, widows and widowers miss the intimacy and companionship of their marriages. And they often have no idea how or where to begin picking up the pieces.
One way this sense of disorientation manifests is in widow fog, a real phenomenon experienced by women and men alike. Grief overtakes the brain, which fights to function properly. The mind runs on autopilot, and recall is limited. Sari Kahn, who lost her husband Ari while in her thirties and raising young children, says that when she went to the mall to buy something for his sheloshim, she had no idea where in the parking lot she’d left her car.
Only someone who has been widowed can understand the experience. It changes one’s life forever. The feelings of loss become manageable but are never entirely gone.
Complicating matters is the disappointment some widows and widowers may experience when they seek support from relatives. Friendships—even those they expected to rely on most—might vanish overnight, or slowly ebb over time, with new ones filling the empty space. “My husband died on 12/25. My close friends on 12/24 were no longer in my life by 12/26,” recalls Maureen Ash, who was left to raise four children by herself when her husband died suddenly. “Yet many new friends became my confidantes on the day after his death.”
Another variable is how the loss of a spouse plays out differently for men and women. There are statistically fewer widowers than widows, and men tend to remarry more quickly, especially if they are raising young children who have been left motherless. There are old presumptions too—that women can carry the daily, practical load by themselves, but will struggle to pay the bills, while men can manage financially on their own, but will collapse beneath the yoke of household chores and meal planning. Neither is completely or always true. For example, widows may have always been their family’s primary breadwinner. Sarah Rivka Kohn—the founder of Zisel’s Links & Shlomie’s Club, which supports children who have lost a parent—points out that widowers might have had to cut their work hours to care for a sick spouse and assume most of the responsibilities at home.
Widows and widowers face many of the same challenges as those who are divorced or unmarried in the couple-centric Orthodox community, such as having to make Shabbat plans week after week if they do not wish to spend it alone. Yet someone who has lost a spouse must do so while carrying the additional burden of grief, and it may be complicated for them at times. “A few families truly saved our lives and I owe them gratitude beyond words for inviting us over for meals,” says Maureen. “But at some point, my kids just wanted me to cook for Shabbos and to get their life that they knew back.”
But when we as a community step up to help a surviving spouse meet both everyday and ritual needs, it can make all the difference in how they and their families survive the initial trauma of their loss and adjust to the alternate reality of widowhood. As Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt writes in his book, The Journey through Grief, the support an individual gets during their “grief journey will have a major influence” on their ability to heal.
No one can or should try to walk this road alone. No one should have to.
Striking a Kind Balance
Jewish communal life pivots on acts of chesed—on practical assistance to new mothers and those who recently had surgery or families coping with long-term illness. But it is critically important that widows and widowers also receive the kindness and support they require, as delineated in the Torah. In Shemot (22:21-23), we are taught how to treat the most vulnerable members of society. “If you mistreat him, [beware,] for if he cries out to Me, I will surely hear his cry.” “Im aneh te’aneh oto, ki im tza’ok yitzak eilai, shamoa eshma tza’akato.” Hashem Himself is especially concerned about the needs of the orphan and the widow. “. . . asher lo yisa panim v’lo yikach shochad, oseh mishpat yasom v’almanah, v’ohev ger latet lo lechem v’simlah—[Hashem . . . ] otherwise shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow . . . providing food and clothing” as it says in Devarim (10:17-18).
Rabbi Steven Miodownik, mara d’atra of Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park, New Jersey, cautions that we must follow the Torah’s guidance with sensitivity. “We have to create a delicate balance in [helping widows and widowers]. No one should ever be made to feel like someone else’s chesed project. Our support to these families who are hurting should come in a dignified and organic way.” For example, better to nurture a friendship and reach out to a widow or widower naturally, rather than call on the same day every month, which might make her or him feel like an item checked off a list.
For Jeffrey Korbman, the help he received was lifesaving when he lost his first wife suddenly twenty-eight years ago, leaving him the only parent of a toddler. “I will never know the full scope of what members of our shul did for us, but it made it possible for me to recover—everything from babysitting to finances to helping me write a will and encouraging me to date when I was ready.”
Meals during the shivah and the initial weeks of mourning are usually a given. Harder is providing for ongoing—and evolving—needs as the family proceeds through the grieving process and the community moves on to the next crisis. Most helpful is when friends or neighbors who know the grieving families well and understand the nuances of their specific circumstances become the angels who take up the mantle of responsibility. In some communities, this happens naturally. In others, families fall off the radar.
Since almost all Jewish communal experiences have the potential to magnify feelings of loss, Rabbi Miodownik stresses the importance of being sensitive in both word and deed. “Everything is centered around couples, from our shul dues structure to the honorees chosen for our annual dinners. We have an obligation to protect [those who are alone] from pain wherever possible.”
Even language can make a difference. Instead of offering both single and couple rates for shul events, we should simply use the inclusive “per person.” One widow suggested that checks from a chesed fund bear only the name of the shul, rather than something like “fund for the needy.”
The loss is a loss. However, it’s important to remember that it’s a change of marital status, not a diminishment of the individual.
So too, an embracing synagogue environment can provide enormous comfort to individuals and families facing dramatically altered circumstances—if they can make it there on Shabbat and yamim tovim at all. Someone might offer to watch a widower’s children every Shabbat so he can attend minyan. A widow without that option might find it too much of a struggle to get her toddlers out of the house. After her husband Josh passed away, Johanna Granoff Cohen remembers, “I was lucky when my kids and I made it to a Shabbos meal at a friend’s house on time.”
Tzippy Russ-Fishbane, a licensed clinical social worker in New Jersey, says that the camaraderie and connections found in shul can be lifesaving for surviving spouses in their fifties and up, which is the age group she counsels. She adds that this is especially true during the early retirement stage—from around age sixty-five through eighty. Though still independent, most widows and widowers at that stage of life no longer have the fulfillment of a career, and if they were caregivers to an ailing spouse, they have lost that responsibility as well. They have likely been empty nesting for a while already, too. And while they may be able to spend Shabbat and two- or three-day holidays with their adult children, families are often geographically dispersed. Even when family lives nearby, it’s not always practical or possible for the parent who is left alone to spend every Shabbat with them.
While many in this population succeed in creating new lives for themselves, those who Russ-Fishbane says are referred to her by their medical doctors are struggling to adapt to their new circumstances. “They are at serious risk for depression,” she says.
Rabbi Miodownik observes that even after the thirty days of saying Kaddish for a wife have ended, oftentimes the built-in schedule of minyanim provides a sense of purpose for older widowers. Likewise, the daily routine fills in their time and can serve as a balm for the long term. Russ-Fishbane notes that while men are usually less likely to be vulnerable about their emotions in group spaces, the handshaking after davening gives them much-needed human contact and feelings of friendship.
Older women who are used to walking to shul with their husbands on Shabbat may feel less inclined to go without them, unwilling to face the painful absence on the other side of the mechitzah. They can easily become invisible to the wider community without this regular, public framework for gathering and social engagement. For support, notes Russ-Fishbane, they often find sisterhood in their mourning. They are more inclined than widowers to join bereavement groups when they are available locally, and to gather for Shabbat meals together, rotating who gets to play hostess. However, not all of them will accept invitations from friends who are still couples because those settings serve as another reminder of their loss.
Widows of all ages who are used to being caregivers are sometimes the most hesitant to accept help themselves. They are just managing to keep their heads above water—coping, getting their families onto stable ground, and providing their children with a sense of normalcy. They rarely have the luxury of thinking about their own personal needs. It takes a significant mind shift to be on the receiving end of emotional, financial and practical support.
Neither grief nor kindness has an expiration date.
“I remind our members that Hashem has laid a massive tzarah at their doorstep,” says Shani Waldman, the co-founder of Samchainu, the largest support network for Orthodox Jewish widows in the US. “There is no shame in accepting the help they need.”
One woman, now an active member of Samchainu, originally demurred when a friend invited her to one of the organization’s events. She felt lucky enough to have a supportive family. But she eventually attended and found comfort in the companionship of other widows. “The support of peers in a similar situation is very different from the support of family. One does not contradict or replace what the other can offer,” Waldman observes.
Comfort in the Details
Because each widow or widower has different needs, Kohn recommends taking cues from the individual about what they might, or might not, want when figuring out the best way to be of help. “It involves every fiber of their being to sit in that place of grief and continue to function. Be there with them, offer the greatest nechamah you can for them, and don’t expect gratitude,” she stresses.
Another rule of thumb is to keep offers of support specific. Asking “can I do anything?” boils down to an offer of nothing. Most widows and widowers, especially in the beginning, have no idea what to answer.
Ehrenpreis notes that in the secular world, Thanksgiving through December is an exceptionally hard time for widows and widowers. Many people who are alone feel further isolated and sink into seasonal depression. Orthodox Jews experience this every Shabbat and yom tov. “It’s a constant conundrum,” she stresses. “The loss is a loss. However, it’s important to remember that it’s a change of marital status, not a diminishment of the individual.”
She recommends inviting people over with this in mind, making them feel welcomed and valued for who they are as people, not because they are widowed. Again, be specific. Instead of, “We would love to have you over some time,” say, “We’d be delighted if you could join us for lunch this Shabbos. Maybe bring one of your delicious salads?” Call a widow and invite her to join you at an upcoming shiur or community event. Say you’ll be glad to drive her if she’d like. That way she won’t have to arrive alone.
Since we all live according to the same calendar, other ways to be of help are those that reflect what we are busy with in our own lives. At the market on Thursday? Consider texting a widow to ask what you can get her for Shabbat. See if a widow or widower would like the gift of a few hours of cleaning help on erev yom tov. Maybe send over a kugel for the family to enjoy on Friday afternoon or drop off a gift card to their favorite shop just because. Reach out to include them in your holiday parties. Call to say hello.
For solo parents with children of the opposite gender, offer to accompany the kids to shul, then sit with them. Arrange to have them over for a playdate so the mom or dad can get an otherwise elusive Shabbat nap. While shopping for your own family’s school supplies, buy theirs too. Take the family’s turn in the carpool rotation—for the entire soccer season. It’s important to remember that solo parents rarely get rest or a reprieve.
As Korbman reflects, “Only someone who has been widowed can understand the experience. It changes one’s life forever. The feelings of loss become manageable but are never entirely gone.”
For this reason, Russ-Fishbane advises, “Don’t see only what is visible on the outside. Look deeper. Many widows and widowers are suffering quietly, especially if they had long, happy marriages. They need to feel engaged, to feel that life is worth living.”
Ultimately, it’s not just what we do for a surviving spouse, but how we show love and position ourselves in their lives, both as friends and as a community, without the expectation of a quid pro quo. If a widow or widower refuses help in the beginning, give them time. Pick up the thread later. Gently. Neither grief nor kindness has an expiration date.
Zisel’s Links & Shlomie’s Club provides loving support and an array of services to children and teens coping with the loss of a parent as well as guidance to widows and widowers navigating the world of solo parenting. http://www.wereinittogether.org
Nagilla is a supportive network that provides financial, emotional and other resources to widowsthroughout the US and Canada. http://nagillaorg.wordpress.com
Samchainu is a supportive community of Orthodox Jewish widows that gives them a lifeline and opportunities to take breathers from the unique pressures they face. http://www.samchainu.org
Ze Lazeh was founded in Israel more than thirty years ago to support widows and orphans struggling emotionally and functionally. http://zeleze.org
On My Own … But Not Alone by Ahava Ehrenpreis (New York, 2019). Inspirational stories and practical guidance on everything from halachah to personal finance for women who are unmarried, widowed or divorced.
Merri Ukraincik has written for Tablet, the Lehrhaus, the Forward, and other publications, including Jewish Action. She is the author of I Live. Send Help, a history of the Joint Distribution Committee.