Caring for widows

September 11th, 2018

Widows in Scripture

In Deuteronomy 24:17, God prohibits taking a widow’s cloak as collateral for a loan. The chapter continues in verse 19 by commanding farmers to leave food in their fields so that widows, orphans and immigrants could pick the leftovers. In the Psalms, God is described multiple times as a defender and helper of widows. In Mark, Jesus denounces the scribes because they “cheat widows out of their homes” (12:40). In all, there are more than 80 direct references to widows in the Bible.

Even a quick read of these texts gives us a clear understanding about why widows are mentioned so often in Scripture. They were one of the most socially and economically vulnerable groups in biblical times. In fact, the Hebrew word for “widow,” almanah, comes from the root word alem, which means “unable to speak.”

Like other surrounding societies, Jewish culture at this time didn’t allow women to speak for themselves. Instead, their male relatives possessed the legal authority to speak for them. Because widows had lost the male relative who served as their protector and provider, they were at particular risk of poverty, hunger and ostracization. Those who were also without sons were at even greater risk.

Although Scripture provides some protections for widows, God’s people often forgot to pay attention to their care. The Law, the Prophets and the Gospels therefore frequently call for justice on behalf of widows, along with other groups of marginalized people, especially orphans and immigrants. 

Despite these calls, the Bible doesn’t always see widows as powerless. In Luke 18:2-8, Jesus tells a parable about a bold widow who refuses to stop pleading her case before an unjust judge. The early church even established an order of widows, referred to in 1 Timothy 5:9-16. In a 2006 article, Christian bioethics professor Cathleen Kaveny points out that these widows had important responsibilities, which included visiting the sick, prophesying and helping to receive repentant sinners back into the fellowship of the church.

Financial challenges for widows today

While a lot has changed for modern widows, especially in the United States, they continue to face a number of challenges. For instance, losing a spouse still leads to financial challenges for many women. According to a 2015 New York Times article, the typical widow in the United States sees her household income decline by 37 percent after a spouse dies. In comparison, men who lose a spouse are hit with an income drop of 22 percent. The assets of widows also tend to decline faster than widowers. Since women typically live longer than men, they must also stretch their finances to cover a longer time frame.

When Janice Eiler’s husband died, she was surprised to find they weren’t in the stable financial state she had imagined. “We had not sat down and planned,” Eiler said. “We should have done it in our 40s, but, you know, you just get lazy.”

In some parts of the world, widows today face legal and financial problems that have much in common with widows in the Bible. When interviewing dozens of widows in Zimbabwe, the organization Human Rights Watch found that many women were forced off their land after their husbands died. A 58-year-old Zimbabwean widow named Deborah was harassed and threatened by her in-laws, who tried to take the land she had worked for over 40 years. Other widows reported that courts sent documents about their land disputes only to their male in-laws, who would then keep information from them that caused them to lose their cases. Deborah was able to keep her land through help from a legal aid organization, but many widows aren’t able to get that kind of support.

Social and emotional challenges

Frustratingly, the immediate legal and financial consequences of death can get in the way of the grieving process. Bea Schwartz’s husband had done many things to prepare their finances in case he died first, but Schwartz still found herself overwhelmed. “You can’t take even a few days to process what’s just happened to you because the business demands taking care of, and the business is not simple,” she said.

Benilda Pacheco found that after she lost her spouse, she experienced a separation from other people like nothing else in her life. “Unless you talk to another widow, no one really understands you.”

New York Times columnist Jane Brody said that after her husband’s death, she felt an urgent need to get projects done around the house. While others told her those things could wait, she knew the impact of each accomplishment on her own feelings of empowerment.

Another aspect of the grief many people experience when a spouse dies is the loss of touch. After her husband’s death, Laurie Burrows Grad craved his touch the most. Burrows Grad encourages us to ask widows if it’s all right to give them a hug. “Even a gentle squeeze of her hand or a pat on the back will be of more use than anything you can say,” she writes.

Caring faith communities

How can churches support widows in our congregations and in our communities? First, we can begin by looking at the pastoral care we offer to those who’ve lost a spouse, especially after the first few weeks following the death have passed. Are our programs and small groups truly welcoming of single people (of all ages), or are they primarily geared to couples? Many widows may find it hard to return to their social circles, including those at church, when they’re the only ones without a spouse.

Do we think of widows as potential leaders, like the order of widows in the early church? Or do we primarily look to those with spouses as potential leaders?

If we listen to scriptures about widows, we must also be concerned for their security. This includes speaking up against injustice that leaves women more economically vulnerable than men, both in the United States and around the world.


While Scripture focuses primarily on widows because of their social and economic vulnerability, God certainly desires for us to care for all people during their time of loss.

Women tend to be left in more difficult financial situations after the loss a spouse than men. When it comes to matters of health, however, it seems that men who lose a spouse are more likely to be at a disadvantage. A study by the Rochester Institute of Technology found that men are one-third more likely to die after being recently widowed. Professor Javier Espinosa, who led the study, says, “When a wife dies, men are often unprepared. They have often lost their caregiver, someone who cares for them physically and emotionally, and the loss directly impacts the husand’s health.”

Although precise statistics aren’t available, men are also more likely to remarry after a spouse’s death than women. Some of this may simply be demographics and the fact that since women tend to live longer, there are more eligible, age-appropriate women than men.

On the other hand, some sociologists believe it may be because of differences in how men and women grieve their losses. These researchers highlight that women are more cautious about a new relationship, while men often place a higher value on finding someone who can help them with organizing their life and providing companionship.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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