This past week, the world has witnessed a grieving nation: the crowds, flower memorials, processions, dirges, and miles of people walking past a coffin. Although I am not British nor living in the Commonwealth, the photos evoke sorrow after the death of a person who lived a remarkable life. The masses of people and public pageantry are a far cry from the photo of Queen Elizabeth II sitting by herself in St. George’s Chapel during the funeral of her husband, Prince Philip, in April 2021. The elderly Queen, her face covered by a black mask, wore a black dress of mourning. The pandemic was still claiming many lives and the UK had laws that prohibited large gatherings. The Queen grieved alone, sitting on a wooden church bench, hunched over.
My mother died in 2011 after a short illness. Her death was unexpected although she had recently been diagnosed with lung cancer. My parents lived in a suburban home not far from two of their children. They actively volunteered, attended church, and held family gatherings in their home. Family and friends gathered quickly to mourn her death and a church memorial service was held a few weeks later. My wife and I had to return to jobs in London soon after the memorial. My father’s house emptied, and he was left alone. His world went quiet, and his life had suddenly changed.
Grieving is always stressful but grieving the death of a spouse is one of life’s most stressful events. I speculate that Prince Phillip’s death shortened the life of Queen Elizabeth II. Scientists have named this phenomenon the “widowhood effect,” the health risks imposed upon the living person after the death of his or her spouse. Mary-Frances O’Connor of the Grief, Loss and Social Stress (Glass) Laboratory at the University of Arizona stated: “We know that grief affects health in general and that the widowhood effect is real.” (What grief does to those left behind: Losing a spouse has a physical impact as well as a psychological one, Anjana Ahuja, Financial Times, September 13, 2022) How impactful is it to lose a spouse? “Widowed men are twice as likely to die as their married peers in the six months following their partner’s death.”
The grieving spouse’s routine changes. First, chores around the house and in the community are now done solely by the surviving spouse. Cooking becomes a solo experience which may lead to weight loss and less nutrients consumed. Rest and sleep can be interrupted, thus lowering immunities. Medications may get neglected because there isn’t the other spouse to remind or follow-up. This may lead to increased risk of a stroke or heath attack. Grieving can result in forgetfulness, falls, and depression, especially for those of advanced age.
My mother was an extrovert, so my father missed her constant chatter and desire to mix in the community. He liked to curl up with a book or work on photography. However, once she was not in the house, it became unbearably quiet and lonely. While friends and family checked up on him, most of his time was spent alone. We were in London and worried about his health, so when we learned about an opening in our church’s January Holy Land tour, we invited him to join us. After his usual pushbacks, he decided to fly to London, and we traveled together to Tel-Aviv. The trip brightened his spirits and he returned to Texas refreshed. Surrounded by a community of faith gave him a new perspective.
How can a grieving spouse minimize the medical risks associated with grieving? Certainly, being alone is not healthy, as we witnessed seventeen months ago with Queen Elizabeth. The Covid virus not only killed millions, but it also shortened the life of millions, especially the elderly who were isolated. Community living is physiologically and psychologically healthy.
Upon returning from London, my father asked my sister to go with him to visit senior living facilities and he quickly found a large, thriving senior community near his home. He promptly sold his house, packed his belongings, and moved into a two-bedroom apartment within the senior complex. My father easily made friends and ate his dinner in the community dining room. He attended lectures, wine tastings, and travel tours. Dad gained his sparkle and weight back. He continues to live happily independent, surrounded by his community of family and friends.
Yesterday’s sermon Scripture was the Good Samaritan parable, considered the most well-known of Jesus’s many parables. Jesus answered the lawyer’s question: “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29, NRSV). Our minister recounted a story of her summer law internship and a fellow law clerk spending his evening meals with an older man in his apartment complex. This older gentleman lacked companionship and this mature young law student took time away from evening social gatherings to provide hospitality to his lonely neighbor. My wife and I recently did this with an older, mobility-impaired gentlemen who lives in our condo building. We enjoyed getting to know him and learned about his life as a cardiologist.
In my book, Trading with God, I quote Maslow’s third need of love/belonging. Humans are made for community. That is why the death of a spouse is so traumatic and impacts our physiology. Without community, we are incomplete. While our world leans increasingly towards individuality, we still need others. Seeing all those British crowds, soldiers wearing their finery, and royalty dressed in black mourning clothing reflects a nation that deeply understands the need for community. As I grow older and my youth fades, my compassion grows for those who grieve. Our Christian faith teaches us that we are never alone, but while we are alive, we are to embrace community by supporting the grieving with our presence. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4, NRSV)