November 14, 2007

When You Lose a Spouse

The following was originally presented as a devotional during a General Conference morning worship. We have preserved many of the elements of oral delivery, including some of the author’s personal references.—Editors.
2007 1532 page8 capT WAS A FRIDAY NIGHT—a few weeks after my husband Manuel died, and I was looking for something to read. My daughter had moved to Loma Linda University, and I was alone. I usually enjoy reading on Friday nights, but that night I wasn’t interested in anything. So many things had changed.
When you’re married, you become one. When your spouse dies, half of you is torn away. You’re expected to go on, but everything changes.
I didn’t care to read anymore. But there was nothing else to do. I looked at the bookcase full of New Age books—one of Manuel’s long-time interests, but I wasn’t interested. I looked at the books on marriage and relationships, but I wasn’t married anymore. I looked at the books on prayer, but I wasn’t in the mood to pray. We had prayed so much when Manuel was sick. We had claimed God’s promises—even writing them on cards and reading and praying over them. Claiming them.
I’d read them to Manuel and told him what a great testimony he would have after God healed him. But God said “no.”
2007 1532 page8My head knows and believes that God is sovereign, knowing the end from the beginning. My head knows that “all things work together for good,” but my heart was lagging behind. My heart was hurting and needed a little time to catch up. I was not bitter. I did not question God. Indeed, it wasn’t God—it was Satan—who took Manuel’s life. But my heart couldn’t understand why God had said “no” to all our prayers.
I went to the study and finally picked up Manuel’s Bible. He has many Bibles, but I chose the one he studied out of. Most of the time it opens to the Psalms, but that evening it opened to the book of Jonah.
Manuel had a sermon on Jonah; right above chapter 2, in the white space, he’d written the words “Never give up on prayer.”
Other Gems He Highlighted
It was ironic that God would use Manuel’s own words to encourage me that night. After I’d cried and prayed, I decided to look through the rest of Manuel’s Bible to see what else he’d written. Manuel read with a red pencil in his hand. He not only underlined, but he wrote notes and drew pictures. He was very visual, an artist.
Here are a few things I found written in his Bible:
  • At Psalm 31:15* (“My times are in thy hand”), Manuel wrote: “We were brought into existence because we were needed.”
  • Psalm 127:1 (“Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it”). Here Manuel drew a house with shrubbery, and a chimney with smoke coming out of it.
  • Isaiah 33:14, 15 (“The sinners in Zion are afraid; fear-fulness hath surprised the hypocrites. Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings? He that walketh righteously, and speaketh uprightly; he that despiseth the gain of oppressions, that shaketh his hands from holding of bribes, that stoppeth his ears from hearing of blood, and shutteth his eyes from seeing evil”). Here Manuel wrote: “God hates sin because it killed His Son. We need to come to the place where we hate sin the way God hates it.”
Near many texts (and beside passages in other books), Manuel would write the word OJO, a word that in Spanish means “eye” or “look.” He would make the O with eyes in it, and the J as a nose. OJO. For him it meant: “take note.”
Another Special Book
Outside of the Bible and the writings of Ellen G. White, the book God Sent a Man had the biggest impact on Manuel’s life. It’s a book on the life of Joseph, written long ago by Carlyle B. Haynes, who weaves a philosophy of life throughout the work. It was given to Manuel by R. E. Crawford, whom we met in Colorado early in Manuel’s ministry. Crawford was involved in a project to find Noah’s ark at the time and wanted Manuel to join him in lecturing on it and raising money for the project. Manuel had an outgoing personality that Crawford saw as a possible asset to his cause.
2007 1532 page8He gave Manuel Haynes’s book, underlining several passages that he should read. (In turn, we’ve given a copy of the same book to many promising young people during our ministry, with the hope that it would help shape their philosophy of life and keep them strong in the Lord—as it had done for Manuel.)
One of the things Manuel took from this book was the motto “Jehovah-jireh”—“The Lord will provide.” He reminded me of this many times in our struggling years. Other truths he gleaned from Haynes’s book included the following: (1) We live in God’s thoughts; (2) God has a plan for our lives; (3) Nothing happens to us by accident; God is in control.
“It is a great comfort to believe that you live in God’s thoughts,” wrote Haynes, “that He is planning for you in love, that He is shaping your life, that He has assigned you something to accomplish for Him, that you are His agent to fulfill His purpose, and that He will control for good every circumstance that is permitted to touch you. . . . No accident can happen to such a man. Things do not happen to him by chance. He is God’s man, God’s agent, and everything that occurs to him comes to him through the hand of God.”
What to Do If You Lose a Spouse
I didn’t choose to be a trailblazer, a pathfinder. But since I’ve gone through the trauma, I would like to try to make the way easier for those who may have to follow me. I’ll just talk to you as a mother. I have more experience in this, and you can benefit from what I’ve learned.
In the wake of Manuel’s death, several women came to me—Linda Tatum, Marilyn Kretchmar (now Marilyn Scott), Joyce Wu, Kazuko Ervin, Jennie Stevenson, Marilyn Riley, Marie Blevins—all of whom had lost spouses to death. I’m just going to throw out a few things I learned from them and others, not necessarily in any particular order.
1. Be prepared. Plan for death. It’s not pleasant, but right now, when you’re not in a life-and-death situation, is the time to plan, rather than having to do it at the time of bereavement, when you’re under great stress.
2. Make decisions. About your house (what to do with it); about the casket and other funeral expenses; about bills. Make a list also of your assets: your home and car; your bank accounts; credit cards; personal collections; wills; power of attorney. Decide on a funeral home; on cemetery plots; on who will have the funeral sermon; on pallbearers; on the music; on flowers and donations; on finances and expenses; etc.
3. Take time for relationships. Some people have commented that Manuel’s death has made an impact on them. They have rethought their priorities and realized that relationships are the most important thing in life. Take time to enjoy your wife, your husband, your children. Work can wait. Housework can wait. Working long hours to obtain money and things should not be a priority. Without your loved ones, those things will mean little to you. I know this from personal experience.
4. Worship together. Study the Bible together. Have family worship. (On our wedding night, Manuel established our first family worship.)
5. Take care of your health. When you are healthy, you don’t appreciate your health. Only when you lose it are you aware of its extreme importance. Exercise; eat right; have regular checkups and tests.
6. Learn something new. Develop a measure of independence. Branch out. I’d always thought of my purpose in life as being Manuel’s helpmeet. We did everything together. I lived vicariously through him. Now I’m not even in the ministry. Manuel was outgoing; I was invisible, working behind the scenes. I didn’t mind it. My identity was with him. Now I’m trying to find out who I am. Now I have to find out what God wants me to do. I wish I’d “branched out” earlier.
What It’s Like to Be a Widow
1. You feel unprotected, unsafe. Perhaps that’s why God said that “pure religion and undefiled” is taking care of orphans and widows.
2. You feel the lack of companionship, the absence of someone to care for and talk with on a regular basis. It’s a time to fill the void with reading, writing, music, talking, prayer. Do something for others. Go on mission trips. I want to laugh again. It’s a way of coping, of bringing back some kind of normalcy.
What to Say to the Bereaved
Don’t say: “I know exactly what you’re going through.” Unless your spouse has died, there’s no way you can know. Even then, everyone grieves differently.

Questions for Reflection

1. We can lose a spouse through death, but also in other ways. What are some of these other ways, and which do you regard as the most traumatic? If you've ever experienced a loss in any way, what coping strategies did you find most helpful?

2. What have you learned about preparing for such crises? What suggestions would you give to others facing (or likely soon to face) such an event?

What are the pitfalls to avoid in our attempts to comfort and support those passing through such traumas? What are some of the do's and don'ts beyond what the author already touched on briefly in the article?

What role does family support play in all of this? What are the challenges where there's no such support? And what special considerations apply in cases in which underage children are involved?

5. How sensitive is your local church to such issues? And how does it address this need among its own members and in the wider community?

6. What scriptures mean most to you in times of crisis and deep sorrow? And what have you found to be the best way to share them with others?

7. As Christians, how do we view the need/use of the professional counseling in dealing with grief/loss?

Don’t say: “It’s better now, because he doesn’t have to suffer anymore.” No, it’s NOT better!

Say: “I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know that I care and I’m hurting too.” [General Conference Youth Director] Baraka Muganda’s comment when Manuel was sick was: “We’re wrestling with the Lord for Manuel.” That was very encouraging to me. It meant he was on our side fighting along with us.
  Talk about the deceased person. Use their name. Tell what impressions you have or what you remember of them. Tell how you appreciate them. I don’t want Manuel to be forgotten. On Manuel’s birthday, I went to the cemetery; two of my colleagues, Mona and Evelyn, left phone messages. They’d remembered his birthday! Sounds like a small thing, but it was meaningful to me.
Three Little Words
Manuel had planned to write two more books—one on an aspect of the New Age, and the other would have been his autobiography. He’d already written quite a bit, and I plan to finish them for him.
He had many interesting experiences in his life, some of the most fascinating coming during his service in the Navy. It was in the middle of his four-year military stint that he became a Seventh-day Adventist. He had to stand up for the Sabbath and against bearing arms—risking being put in the brig. He even did Ingathering aboard ship!
What He Left Behind
Manuel was buried in a military cemetery in Crownsville, Maryland. We wanted to put something on his marker that would be meaningful, but the authorities said there was room for just Manuel’s name, rank, time of service, date of birth, and date of death. But after some talking, they said there was one line we could use—the line would otherwise have been reserved for my name when I die. However, since they’d have to make a new stone for me at that time anyway, my daughters and I thought we’d use the one line on Manuel’s marker.
But what would be meaningful and appropriate?
Finally, we came up with a short phrase, just three little words with a total of eight letters. That was all we needed to sum up the life of a wonderful husband, a wonderful father, and a wonderful man. Appearing at the bottom of his headstone, it reads simply: “MAN OF GOD.”
In one of his moments of reflection the apostle Paul wrote: I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing (2 Tim. 4:7, 8).
This passage applies to all of us. May we stay faithful to the One who gives us our crown of righteousness.
*All Scriptures quoted in this article are from the King James Version.
Nancy Vasquez, until her retirement in February 2005, worked as a desktop publishing specialist in the Volunteer Ministry Department of the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, in Silver Spring, Maryland.