Ella Prichard lived comfortably as the wife of a successful businessman well regarded in Texas oil industry circles. She did the “Ella work” of nonprofit volunteering, child rearing, grandmothering and maintaining the family’s social network. Her husband, Lev, did the “Lev work” of running the business that maintained their lifestyle.
In 2009 Lev died after an illness and it fell to Ella, then 68, to do both her job and Lev’s. The overwhelming weight of it truncated her grieving process and threatened to suffocate her. Nine years after Lev’s death, Ella has written a book to help new widows transition from that suffocating sorrow to reclaimed joy.
Reclaiming Joy: a primer for widows was released Sept. 15 by Baylor University’s 1845 Press. Prichard talked with Baptist News Global about grief, the process of recovery and her return to joy. Portions of the interview have been edited for brevity and clarity.
BNG: You say widows aren’t “given time to grieve.” How is that so, even in faith communities?
For friends, the funeral comes and goes and brings closure. They assume it brings closure for the family, too, and it’s over. I probably felt the same way. I don’t think I showed my mother nearly the sympathy and empathy that I needed to when my daddy died. Christian ethicist David Gushee talks of death not as an event, but as a condition. The loss of a spouse, and probably the loss of a child, are conditions, not events. For everybody else, there’s a death and a funeral; everybody pays homage and there’s closure. But if the person who has died is the one you’ve seen first thing in the morning and last thing at night for 46 years, then your life changes forever.
“You discover you’ve lost your identity. Who am I if I’m not half of a couple?”
Helen Harris, a grief expert at the Diana Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University, said two things affected the American way of grieving. The first was the JFK funeral – the first televised funeral – in which we saw Jackie Kennedy be so strong. That image set a mold of what you’re supposed to be like. But, nobody saw her crying at night in the White House, or the children asking “Where is daddy?” It was probably healthy to see John McCain’s daughter break down and to see Cindy McCain shed some tears. It’s OK to cry.
Sometimes the church keeps people from processing their grief adequately. We’re told, “Oh they’ve gone to heaven and they’re well again and they’re in the presence of God” and therefore we’re supposed to be celebrating. Somehow, you’re lacking in faith if you’re grieving.
Paul wrote in Thessalonians, “Do not grieve as others do who have no hope.” He didn’t say do not grieve. I think all of these “celebrations of life” are just trying to disguise (he pain of grief.
BNG: It might surprise some to hear you talk about the new freedom you felt, once you got past the immediate sorrow of Lev’s death.
I only recognized it in retrospect. A widower friend, who deeply grieved the passing of his wife, admitted he no longer had to do things he didn’t want to. No one made him wear a tie when he didn’t want to, or go to events he didn’t want to attend. I don’t think the freedom eliminates the loss or the grief. My husband hated opera and ballet, so we never went. I have several friends who love opera and now I go to lots of opera.
What are the things you were once upon a time interested in, but got lost? It’s a time where you can go back to old forgotten hobbies or interests or develop new skills. You get brain cells going not by doing repetitive crossword puzzles and such, but by learning new skills. It can be rewarding. You can define who you want to be.
BNG: You write that it takes courage to move past the death of a spouse. How so?
Truly, it’s a challenge to get out of the bed in the morning. It’s a challenge to put one foot in front of you. It’s a challenge to go to the cemetery and pick out a grave stone. Who wants to do that? All of that takes courage. The courage of walking into church alone, of going to a party alone, or to a meeting alone; of going up to a table and asking if you can sit there. To travel alone.
It is a black hole you have forever. Everything you have to do for the first time after you are widowed or divorced is harder. If you’ve never pumped your own gas, for instance, then every time you pump gas you’re reminded. “Why isn’t he here to pump my gas? Why am I having to do this? I hate doing this.” I have friends who will go to a restaurant and get a to-go box and take it home and reheat it rather than eat alone.
The amount of courage it takes to walk into a room alone when you are newly single and you feel like everyone is looking at you and everybody’s feeling sorry for you – a lot of people can’t do it at all.
Admiral William McRaven wrote a book about what he learned as a Navy SEAL. Pay attention to the little things, he said, like making your bed. If a widow makes her bed, she’s less likely to crawl back in it and pull the covers over her head.
You build resilience by having the courage to do something. It takes courage to do things differently from the way your husband did them. Just to give yourself permission takes courage. Hang in there; it takes longer than you think.
BNG: Simple math says the majority of married women who reach age 78 will be widows. What advice would you give all married women, realizing that most will one day be widows?
There are 3 million widows above age 50 in Texas alone. There are almost a million new widows a year in the United States. The median age of widows is only 59.4 years. We think of widows being little old ladies. Many aren’t little old ladies when they become widows. They live a long time, and most do not remarry. Men typically remarry younger women. There’s not enough good men to go around. So most women do not remarry. The older widows I know want to avoid becoming a nurse or a purse.
Young widows don’t have a peer group. By the time you get my age, you know more widows than married women.
That’s one of the issues with “couples” classes in churches. Just that word “couples” is an uncomfortable word when you’re widowed and you’re reminded that you’re not a couple anymore. The same would hold true with divorced persons. When we talk about families and how to attract families, widows want to scream, “What about all those singles out there who need the church?”
BNG: How can churches be more attentive to newly widowed or divorced people?
People don’t think to say, “Let me come by and get you for church.” It’s awful sitting alone in the pew. The least you can do is say, “I will meet you in the lobby.”
“You build resilience by having the courage to do something. Just to give yourself permission takes courage.”
Sundays are the worst day of the week for most widows. If a church has both traditional and contemporary services, the traditional service is usually the early one. Two things happen: One, it makes already sad Sundays the longest day of the week. Two, when couples are going out to lunch together after church, and you go home to have a peanut butter sandwich, it’s just a day that reminds you you’re alone in a sea of couples and families.
In Baptist life, we count on adult Sunday school classes to minister to members in time of hospitalization or death. What happens to people who are not in Sunday school? Our world has changed and our organizational structure has not always kept up.
BNG: You say, “Nobody warned us that death was only the first loss.” What are losses that follow?
You discover you’ve lost your identity. Who am I if I’m not half of a couple? We always say, “I’m so-and-so’s wife, mother, etc.” So, who are we? I just hate it when I get a letter addressed to Ms. Ella Prichard. I’m Mrs. Lev Prichard until the day I die. It’s like they’re saying that 46 years was just a waste.
Plans and hopes and dreams you had are gone. Some people you thought you could trust prove no longer trustworthy. Friends who included you when you were half of a couple no longer include you. Usually there is some financial loss. Maybe you have to find a job for health insurance. That’s a shock if you’ve been a stay-at-home mom. Maybe you taught school 30 years ago, and now you have to go to work when you’re 55 or 60. Some people have to give up their homes, and that’s a dramatic loss. There may be the loss of family traditions because the empty chair is so obvious.
BNG: Talk about what you call “joyful anticipation,” as opposed to living with past memories.
When psychologists test people, anticipation is a stronger emotion than memory. I saw this when my mother was in the nursing home after dad died. If she knew my son was coming home for a visit, or her sisters were driving down from Louisiana, she was like a child waiting for the birthday party. It perked up her spirits to have something to anticipate.
We just need something to look forward to. If all we can do is look backwards, it too easily can grow sad, and life is over. That’s one of the things I’m specifically careful about at Christmas time. I call some people and get some things on the calendar, make some plans; otherwise, I’ll be miserable.
We love to give people surprise parties and we love to see people surprised and happy. But, don’t spring surprises on widows. Let them know far in advance so they have months with something to look forward to. And it gives all your friends something to anticipate. It’s a gift to others as well as yourself. Anticipation will get you past lots of hurdles.
BNG: Your chapter on “Beware!” could be especially important. Who and what do widows need to watch out for? Are “religious” abusers most insidious?
The grieving widow who goes for counseling can easily be taken advantage of. Sometimes ministers and other people in the non-profit world play on their emotions and give them friendship and recognition in exchange for chasing their dollars. The older you are and the more money you have the greater likelihood of a lawsuit challenging your will that was changed late in life. If there are no children, there are more lawsuits than you would ever dream.
“Sundays are the worst day of the week for most widows.”
When an elderly widow of means leaves her estate, the family – especially if she changed her will when she was elderly – suspects something. I was shocked to see all the paraphernalia in my retired aunt’s house from one of the TV evangelists. Her house was practically a shrine. She was living very, very modestly, yet sending monthly checks to this man. It was just so obvious this was a very manipulative kind of fund raising.
BNG: You make the sobering statement that “Widowhood brought the reality that I was no longer the most important person in anyone else’s life.” Explain that comment.
It’s different with a young widow who has dependent children, but when your children are grown, with their own lives, you really could feel alone if you don’t make intentional steps otherwise. One of my adult grandchildren was going to join us for dinner but got a better offer from a friend and cancelled. I was not upset but his daddy was. I said, “You know, son, I’m not the most important person in your life.” He couldn’t deny it. I said, “Now that your boys are married, you’re not the most important person in their life anymore. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. That’s the way God intended it to be.”
It’s just vital if you want your children to have a relationship with each other, if you want your grandchildren to know each other and like each other after you’re gone, you have to lay a foundation for that. I didn’t know there was a job of matriarch, but there really is. There really are things that grandmother can do to promote and pass along family values.
BNG: You say generosity is a key to happiness. At the same time, it’s common for children to monitor, even subconsciously, mother’s expenditures, sometimes because they know that every dollar she gives away is a dollar less inheritance for them. How do you balance those potentially conflicting facts?
Everybody has a conflict of interest. The children have a conflict of interest, because the more you spend, the less they inherit. I’ve just seen it several times, when mother goes into assisted living, and when her mind begins to fail, they come up with some excuse to move her to a cheaper place.
Have no secrets. I’ve made sure that my children are fully informed of what I’m doing and what I want to do. I don’t want them saying, “Oh, this isn’t what mother meant and that’s just the lawyer putting in language that she didn’t understand.” That’s really hard to deal with, having your children know your business. But they need to know what you’re planning. All of my professional advisors and everything I read say the more communication and openness there is, the less likely there is to be dissention or lawsuits afterwards.
BNG: Is your book for widowers too?
Basically, no. Women and men handle grief so differently. Most men are less introspective. They’re not going to dwell on their feelings. Most men, even if they have good buddies, it’s at the gym, or fishing or talking about sports. How do you tell men how to build and nurture relationships? That’s why they’re often so terribly lonely and so much quicker to remarry than are women.