‘You don’t get married to live on your own!’ Yet, in this world of disease and death, that loneliness comes to many men and women who have spent much of their adult working-life in the joy of a deeply satisfying Christian marriage.
About two years ago, my wife for four decades fell asleep in Jesus, after a fairly brief illness.
Sue was the delight of my life, my best friend and my soulmate. Her passing has left a huge hole in my world. Nothing is the same now. Nothing is as good as it was with her around.
I miss her in a myriad of ways. The house is dirty; the garden overgrown. The fridge is half-empty. I no longer watch Call the midwife or Poldark. There is no one with whom to share my joys or heartaches. There’s no one to join me in a late-night game of Scrabble or share my prayer times.
There is no one to tell me it’s time to go to bed, or cuddle up to when I get there. No one reads to me anymore; reminds me to put out the wheelie bin or take my tablets; asks me how my day has gone and tells me the most intimate secrets of the heart.
I miss dreadfully having someone who always wants me to hold their hand. I miss being able to share a cream tea in the cafe of a National Trust property. I miss having someone to call four times a day from the Banner Minister’s conference, when I just long to enthuse over a wonderfully uplifting address or sweet conversation with a friend, old or new.
I miss having someone to tell that she’s gorgeous, and to whom I can say, ‘I love you’, twenty times a day without being pushed away. And I miss one thousand other small but precious things that made every day with my lady a joy.
Sure, life still has many pleasures and many profound blessings, but much of its colourful richness has gone since I laid my wife’s precious body in that cruel grave.
Yet I am a blessed man. Even after nearly two years, people ask me how I’m doing. And many remain deeply concerned for, and even anxious about, me. I know some of that is because they could see what my ‘Eve’ meant to me and feared I would completely fall apart after I lost her.
The truth is that we were inseparable, and yet death has torn us apart. And even though my grief is greatly tempered by the assurance that the separation is but for a brief while, and that my beloved is now in paradise with her Saviour, still the separation is absolute. Mind, I still sometimes talk to her as if she was there besides me; it’s one strange way that I find relief in my loneliness.
So how am I doing? Well, in some ways I’m doing better than I would have dreamed possible. I truly am sustained by the grace of God, in answer to the prayers of many. I am managing to keep going in life. I’m managing to look after myself, after a fashion.
This is easier for me than many in my position, because I’m still relatively young, fit and in excellent health. And, thankfully, I have a large circle of very hospitable friends and family members who give me great practical support. In addition to all that, church life is good and fairly stress free, and I have plenty of useful things to do to more than fill my time.
I am also learning some key ways to overcome the temptations that are endemic to situations like mine, including self-pity and laziness. Let me tell you of four ‘fellow soldiers’ that I have sought to recruit, to help me in my war against being overwhelmed by grief, despair or bitterness.
My first ally is thankfulness. I am very aware that for more than 40 years I was blessed with the kind of marriage of which most people can only dream. Hence the memories I have of my Susie are all positive.
She was a remarkable lady: servant-hearted, thoughtful, kind, fun, industrious, omni-competent, down to earth, God-fearing and content. Accordingly, she was much admired and loved by almost all who knew her. So I can’t think of her now without breaking into a broad smile and having a heart full of thankfulness to her Maker and Redeemer.
Hence, I find it almost impossible to feel bitter towards the Lord for taking her home before me. That would just seem like appalling ingratitude. She was a great friend to me, from the day I took her hand on our first walk together as teenagers, to the day I held her soft and gentle hand as the Lord called her to glory. So even the tears I still shed for her are as much tears of joyful thankfulness as painful sorrow.
My second ally is service. I have found that seeking to serve others and seeing life from that perspective is a great antidote to both self-pity and excessive sorrow.
I am fortunate still to have sermons and Bible studies to prepare, as well as many friends — believers and unbelievers — to visit for the Lord, who loved me and gave himself for me.
I find that my problems are much more in perspective when I focus my attention on the needs of others, whether they are elderly saints or my grandchildren. We were not created, nor recreated, to be self-absorbed, and many of our problems come from forgetting that.
And there are many bonuses to a life lived in service to others. Most people respond well to kindness shown to them and interest expressed in their lives. Furthermore, there is joy to be found in service that really begins to make a difference in the lives of others, even if they are less than grateful.
The blessing of a good conscience before the Father, who calls us to love our neighbours as we love ourselves, is a precious thing. Sadly I am, at times, still extremely selfish, but the example of my beloved, who mirrored her Lord in a life of constant service to others, is a powerful reminder of what is possible to those who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit.
My third ally is fellowship. If I spend too much time at home with my own company, I can easily get ‘down’. Sure, it has been important to learn to cope both practically and emotionally with being on my own, and I do not hate or fear being ‘home alone’.
Thankfully, I am comfortable with my own company (though I’m often disappointed with myself). Yet I fight every tendency to be hermitic, and have particularly appreciated the fellowship of my church family, most of whom are much younger than me.
I am at every church social event and last to leave on most Sunday evenings. I like nothing more than to welcome people at the church door on a Sunday. I love the weekly prayer meetings. It’s also a delight to attend other churches when on holiday or visiting family.
Simply put, it is an immense blessing to be part of the family of God. I desperately need those relationships to keep me stable and spiritually healthy. Fellowship cannot take away the profound sense of loss I feel so much of the time, but it is a great tonic to the kind of cheerful Christian life that really does cause onlookers to ask us to explain the evident hope that marks our lives.
My fourth and final ally is the ear and heart of the Lord himself. I put 4th what is truly 1st because it is when thankfulness, serving others and fellowship fail to overcome the intense heartache of having lost my better half that the deep, tender and unquenchable love of the Saviour for this vulnerable and sometimes deeply troubled soul becomes most tangible and gloriously sustaining.
What a privilege to cry out to him in near despair and be strengthened and reassured by gloriously appropriate words of Scripture, or some amazingly timely and gracious providence.
The Saviour knows at first-hand the experience of intense loneliness and isolation. He is the perfect comforter for the grieving and the best friend a sinner can have. My experience is that, through my Sue’s final illness and since then, many gracious words of Scripture have become far more personal and precious to me and deeply effective in comforting and keeping my heart.
When the future in this world starts to look rather bleak — which it can do when I miss Sue most — what a reassurance it is to remember that all my tomorrows are in the hands of the Lord, who knows and loves me best.
Who knows what joys, blessings and opportunities for usefulness he still has in store for me? So I need to grasp again that every day with him is an adventure into the unknown, in which his grace will always prove sufficient and his mercies new and surprising.
So, accompanied by these four trusty soldiers, I seek to stand firm in the often bloody battle against the temptation to despondency and self-pity that sometimes threaten the contentment and even the faith of the widower.
Notwithstanding all the blessings of family and church, it is a hard battle to be involved in, especially without the one who was there beside me as a great encourager in many previous spiritual skirmishes.
How reassuring it is, then, to have already experienced in the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ something at least of the nearness of the Saviour, and of his power and determination to keep me, right up to the moment of entry into his eternal kingdom.
Graham Heaps recently retired from many years of ministry as the first pastor of Dewsbury Evangelical Church (DEC), West Yorkshire. He is currently helping DEC’s church plant in Wakefield.