I became a widow 21 years ago at the far-too-young age of 52. Three widows came to my home to express their condolences during the week of shiva, and while I appreciated their visits, none of them offered any words that comforted me.
The first one remarked: “It’s been two years and I haven’t been able to sleep in the bedroom yet.” How strange, I remember thinking. I find our bedroom a place of peacefulness and comfort; it was, after all, our bedroom! The second woman shared the following: “I’m in the autumn of my years, but you, you’re still so young to become a widow.” Good grief, I thought. If I am lucky enough to live a long life, will widowhood become my albatross? And the third widow expressed the following view of life: “It doesn’t get any better.” Need I say more?
Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer at Facebook, shared the grief she experienced when her husband of 11 years suddenly died while on the treadmill at the ripe old age of 47. Recognizing that Option A – her husband being alive again – was not a possibility, she wrote the book “Option B,” which describes how a person experiencing such a loss faces adversity, builds resilience, and ultimately finds joy.
She paints an unusually dark and frightening picture of how widows are viewed in some other parts of the globe: “Widows continue to face cruel treatment around the world. In some parts of India, widows are cast away by their own families, left to beg to survive. In some Nigerian villages, widows are stripped naked and forced to drink water that has been used to bathe their dead husbands. Discrimination against widows has been observed by 54 percent of people in China, 70 percent in Turkey, and 81 percent in South Korea. In many countries, widows have difficulty obtaining property rights.”
Judaism, of course, has a much kinder, caring approach to the widow. In Exodus 22, 21-23, God powerfully utters the following warning: “You shall not cause pain to any widow or orphan. If you cause him pain – for if he shall cry out to Me, I shall surely hear his outcry. My wrath shall blaze and I shall kill you by the sword, and your wives will be widows and your children orphans.”
Now that statement sends a very clear message that nobody, absolutely nobody, should mess with me! I have always believed that God was watching over me, but now, while He could not give me back the husband I loved and missed, He clearly wanted to assure me that I could always, always depend on His protection. That, you will agree, is a philosophically comforting approach to life.
I admit that a piece of me has always disliked the view of the “poor young widow.” While starting out as a young, somewhat timid 20-year-old bride, I was fortunate enough to be married to a man who always encouraged me to embrace my strengths, to learn new things, to stand up for what I believed in and what I wanted, and to feel that anything was possible. Even through illnesses, my husband was the most optimistic, funny, resilient individual I have ever met. And while I lost him, I never lost the strengths he nurtured and encouraged in me. I took my time to grieve when he died and then I moved forward. We don’t move on, because that would suggest we leave the loss behind us. Not possible, for the loss is a part of us always; we move forward, always treasuring the light of joy because we have known the darkness of grief.
About 10 years after my husband died, my cousin’s wife lost her brother. I drove to Brooklyn after work to make a shiva call. I didn’t know the man who died or his family, but I wanted to offer comfort to my cousin’s wife. I walked quietly into the room and sat down next to my relative. We chatted for a time, and then she turned to her sister-in-law across the room and said: “This is my cousin Tzivia; her husband died a few years ago.” The widow took a moment to look at me carefully and then softly remarked: “And you’re sitting there; you’re talking, you’re smiling, you’re dressed nicely. Are you able to tell me that this could be me some day?”
That was an “aha moment” for me, a sudden moment of profound insight. I did not come to that shiva house to console my cousin’s wife, though that was a secondary outcome. I was in that house for the widow, because only another widow could possibly know how she was feeling. I had the power to perhaps give her a productive glimpse into the future. That reality changed my approach forever to condolence calls; I began to welcome the opportunity for such visits because, unlike those three widows who visited me in my home, I had something meaningful and positive to share with the one person who needed it most. Isn’t that what true comfort is all about?
“You won’t believe me now,” I responded to the widow, “because it’s far too soon for you to see it. You must take your time to grieve; you are entitled to it. But happiness is as powerful an emotion as sadness; at the right time, the day will come that one will replace the other in importance. And surely your late husband would wish that for you.”
Many years later, in the summer of 2019, that same cousin’s wife invited me to the engagement party of her oldest granddaughter. While mingling with my relatives, a lovely woman approached me. “You won’t remember me,” she said, “but I am the widow you spoke to you when you came to pay a condolence call to my sister-in-law many years ago.” She hugged me and added, “You were so right!” Dressed nicely, smiling, and clearly happy, she told me she had remarried a few years later and had fulfilled her dream of moving to Israel with her new husband. How wonderful to hear the next chapter of her life, and I was so grateful that in the blackness of her mourning, I had suggested that such a chapter could be written.
I am many things – mother, grandmother, sister, friend, aunt, cousin, retired professional, neighbor, writer, and so on. Yes, I am also a widow, but I am not defined by that role or any other, although widowhood adds a specific strength to the many pieces of my greater whole. I don’t seek out the friendship of widows just as I don’t seek out the friendship of grandmothers; some friends happen to be widows and certainly many friends are grandparents. And thankfully I am as comfortable in the company of couples as I am in the company of a single friend; it took me some time to reach that point, but I got there. And while I don’t dwell too much on the widow piece of me, there is comfort in knowing that God assures me in the Torah that He definitely has my back.
Mary Pipher, a clinical psychologist in Lincoln, Nebraska, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times on January 13, 2019 called “The Joy of Being a Woman in Her 70s.” Having lived a life with joy and sadness, she speaks to the widow in me when she writes, “By our 70s, we’ve had decades to develop resilience. Many of us have learned that happiness is a skill and a choice…. We have learned to look every day for humor, love and beauty. We’ve acquired an aptitude for appreciating life. Gratitude is not a virtue but a survival skill, and our capacity for it grows with our suffering.”
The words of Albert Camus that Sheryl Sandberg quotes in her book resonate in my head: “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” And that is the power of my widowhood.
Tzivia Bieler and her late husband, Bruno, moved to Teaneck in January 1974. She retired as the executive office director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Retirement brings her pleasure, and more time to spend with children and grandchildren in United States and Israel.