Carol Cornish on her New Book “The Undistracted Widow”

October 5, 2010

I have known Carol Cornish for as long as I have known my wife. Carol was a member of the church in which my wife was also a member. I met my wife, and all of her friends (including Carol) as I grew to know and court my wife. We also had the privilege of meeting a few times with Carol as we progressed along in our courtship and preparation for marriage, as Carol is a trained Biblical counselor. She is gifted at getting to the heart of matters and bringing the Scriptures to bear on your life. So, when I heard she was writing a book, I knew I wanted to read it, no matter what it was upon. Because it was on a topic so personal to her and because of her skill in counseling, I knew I would want this book for my own. I was not disappointed. Carol’s new book, The Undistracted Widow: Living For God After Losing Your Husband from Crossway, is both an excellent resource for widows and for the churches that should seek to care for them. Carol was gracious enough to take some time to answer some questions I had for her about the book.

1) It is clear from your book that losing one’s husband is a terrible thing. What made you decide to write about it?

I decided to write about the loss of a husband because:

  • I could not find written materials that were biblically sound and extensive in addressing this particular loss;
  • I began to realize that what I wrote for myself and collected from other sources was making a huge positive impact on my ability to adjust to being a widow;
  • I found that in my interactions with other widows and with widowers that they were helped by the things that God was teaching me;
  • I observed that even grieving Christians often seemed to lack focus and were confused about what to do now that their spouse was gone; they were languishing in their circumstances or running away from their sorrowful feelings rather than going to God with them;
  • I sensed a need for instruction for churches and families on how to help widows.

2) How are churches doing in ministering to widows? Where are they lacking?

My impression of how churches are doing in ministering to widows is that help is adequately provided around the time of the death, but that ongoing ministry could be improved.  In fact, ongoing ministry to older people in general needs improvement.  Churches seem focused, like our culture, on youth.  Ministry to older people is a low priority if a priority at all.  While it is common to hear a lot about the church’s obligation to nuclear families or to orphans, how many times do you hear about concern for widows that leads to intentional ministry to them?  Somehow we’ve overlooked the clear and consistent message in the Scriptures that God has deep concern not only for orphans and other vulnerable persons among us but certainly also for widows.  I sometimes get the sense that because a fair number of widows and other older people live in retirement communities and because many have pensions and government support that the church assumes all of their needs are being met.  But that is a misguided assumption.

3) In what ways did your church best help you as you grieved? What could they have done better?

My church best helped me in a number of significant ways:

  • prayer – congregational prayer for us on Sunday mornings, with my husband and me in our home, in small group meetings – consistent, fervent prayer from the leadership of my church and from people in the congregation
  • consistent contact – email, phone calls, cards, visits – we knew we were not alone in the struggle against cancer and failing health
  • meals – and other offers of practical help; our assistant pastor even loaned us a dehumidifier to dry out a wet basement
  • the support of other widows after my husband’s death – they were  my beacon in the darkness showing me how to go on
  • the funeral service at the church and the reception after the graveside service – I felt so surrounded by the strength and love of my brothers and sisters in Christ

I honestly cannot think of anything they could have done better.  They were a model of how to do it right.

4) As individual Christians how can we best minister to widows? How should the church specifically minister to widows?

The best way to help a widow is to get to know her well and to minister the one another’s of the New Testament to her.  Include her as part of your family.  Don’t assume anything – check it out with her.  Will she be alone on holidays?  Ask her.  Does she need help around the house?  Take your rake or shovel over to her home and help her with maintenance tasks that overwhelm her.

A church in our area has a sign-up sheet in the lobby for anyone who needs help with grass, leaves, and snow.  The youth ministry then provides the elbow grease for helping with these tasks.  What a powerful and practical way to show the love of Christ!  What a powerful witness to neighbors and communities!

Those in church leadership who are responsible for the care of members need to respectfully and sensitively ask if she needs financial help.  Find out if and how family members are in contact with her and if they are caring for her.  If they seem to be neglectful, explore with them what they think their role is in caring for her.

If she resides in a nursing home or retirement community, she is still the church’s responsibility.  Be sure to visit on a regular basis and find out how she is being cared for.  Ask her questions about the care and services provided.  Make sure the staff knows that you look in on her on a consistent and frequent basis.

Any faithful widow left truly alone is the church’s responsibility. The church must be her advocate so that she is not abused and neglected.

5) As a trained biblical counselor, what can you advise us to say to those who are grieving around us?

All of us have suffered in some way – large or small.  Think carefully about what has been said to you that has been encouraging, comforting, and helpful.  If you can’t think of anything to say, at the least say “I’m sorry” because you are sorry – sorry that the person is suffering this loss.  If it’s true, tell them that you’ve been thinking about them and are praying for them.  If appropriate, tell the person you care about them and give a gentle hug.  Do not tell them you know how they feel – you don’t know.  Do not relate to them a story about a loss you have suffered. Do not use Scripture verses as platitudes.

Give a concrete invitation and follow up – “Can you join us for dinner on Saturday?”  Do not nervously say that you’ll have the person for dinner/get together and then not follow through.  Saying nothing would be better than raising false hopes of an invitation. Be genuine, be self-forgetful and let your words bless the grieving.  In my book, I have a small chart of things to say and not to say.

6) I have heard it said that the church should financially support women in the church with no husbands, specifically those with children, so they do not have to work outside of the home. What do you think about this? Is it the church’s responsibility to financially support our single women with children?

While this is an important question, it is not something I have extensively studied.  Therefore, I would defer to those who have – like John MacArthur and Grace Community Church.

7) What other resources would you recommend on the subject of widows and grieving?

Elisabeth Elliot, who was widowed twice, has some valuable written materials on grief especially her booklet entitled Facing the Death of Someone You Love.  Patti McCarthy Broderick wrote a book that is very helpful especially for younger widows entitled He Said, “Press.”  A book recently released is God’s Care For the Widow by Austin Walker.  Walker is a pastor in the UK and his book comes from the perspective of a pastor ministering to widows.  I like his theological understanding of the issues in widowhood, however, for a recently widowed woman the book may come across as somewhat academic.

My book has an extensive suggested reading list in which many helpful books and articles on grieving may be found.

8) You cite a number of different hymns throughout history. How did Christian hymnody help you through the grieving over the death of your husband? How can it help others grieving?

A good hymn is solid theology poetically expressed and set to beautiful music.  In all of the major crises of my Christian life, the thing that kept my mind sane and stable was singing to myself these wonderful hymns.  In a crisis, it is hard for me to recite to myself chunks of Scripture.  But if I sing to myself, the tune carries me along and the words come more easily.  The truths those words express guide and comfort me.  So, in auto accidents, in hospital emergency rooms, in doctors’ offices, and in the room my husband died here at home, I have sung these wonderful songs to myself or out loud.  I receive immense comfort in this way.  I suggest memorizing hymns just as we memorize Scripture.  One way to do this is to take a hymn and sing it everyday (all the verses in the hymnal) for a month.  After thirty days of singing the hymn daily, it will be planted in your mind and hopefully accessed easily in your memory when you are under duress.

9) You cite a number of historical writers throughout your book. Was there a writer who spoke most clearly to what you were facing? Who was the most helpful writer of the past for you?

Puritan pastors were wonderful physicians of the soul.  They knew the Scriptures well, they knew God – especially in a warm and personal way, most of them had experienced significant suffering, and they knew the needs of their people because they visited them regularly in their homes.  And they wrote down what they learned about how to minister the grace and love of God to others.  So, we have this wonderful body of literature to instruct us about life’s crises, for example, Thomas Watson’s The Art of Divine Contentment and All Things For Good, Jeremiah Burroughs’ The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, John Owens’ Communion With God, John Flavel’s Facing Grief, Thomas Vincent’s True Christian’s Love to the Unseen Christ, and so on.

In addition, though they are not strictly considered among the Puritans, I have been profoundly influenced in my thinking and helped in my grieving by the writings of Charles Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Angell James, Arthur Pink, and P. B. Power.

10) Now that this book is done, do you have plans to do any more writing or speaking on this topic or on other practical theological topics?

Yes, I am writing for a magazine in the UK and doing blog and radio interviews for the book. I will be continuing to speak at women’s events on various topics on which I have written.  I have some ideas for new writing projects and am praying over them and waiting for the Lord’s leading.

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