For Eileen Vignaroli, the plight of the widow was all too real.
When she was widowed in 2015 after 47 years of marriage, Eileen thought the death of her husband Don might just lead to her own. She’d never known pain so intense as the grief she felt … she was devastated, and one of the hardest aspects of her grief was that it seemed like no one quite understood what she was going through. Her road to healing was long and winding.
“No one knows what a widow feels like except for another widow. It’s not like any other loss,” Eileen said in an interview with CityServe last January. “And the grief process doesn’t go by the book.”
Once she’d experienced significant healing, Eileen was prompted by the Lord to begin her own ministry to those dealing with the same grief. As a member of Canyon Hills Church in Bakersfield, Eileen was familiar with the bereavement ministry that already existed there. The church came alongside recently widowed men and women and offered help with burial arrangements as well as homemade meals for a few weeks after a spouse’s passing. But once reality started to set in and loneliness became the most intense, there didn’t seem to be any other support offered.
One-third of widows meet the criteria for clinical depression in the first month after a husband’s death
Eileen knew firsthand that life could be bleak in the months and years after a spouse’s death and that widows desperately needed more than they were getting from the church. “Your life is not the same,” she told us. “Friends, money, all of it is different. Your couple friends fade away. Nothing is the same.” And with one-third of widows meeting the criteria for clinical depression in the first month after a husband’s death, there isn’t time to waste.
It is often the case that ministries are led most effectively by those who have a heart for a particular type of suffering. Whether that suffering is associated with poverty, mental illness, addiction, or incarceration, it impacts everyone differently and can pull at the heartstrings of one person more than another. Frequently, that tug is a result of someone’s personal experience.
Eileen knew she was in a unique position to serve well. Though she wouldn’t have wished her own process of preparation on anyone, God used it for good.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort,  who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.  For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. — 2 Corinthians 1:3-5
She approached her church leadership and proposed an idea for a new ministry. It would be an extension of the bereavement ministry that they offered to new widows. The plan would be to connect with widows on an ongoing basis through lunches out together, game nights held in one of the lady’s homes, and an occasional Bible study. Aptly called “Lemons to Laughter,” the ministry would seek to bring joy back into these ladies’ lives.
“If you take a bite of a lemon it is not good. It’s sour and not satisfying. That is how grief and sorrow is. But if you add sugar and water with the lemon juice it becomes pleasant and refreshing to drink. That is what the Holy Spirit does through Lemons to Laughter. He has placed people around me to help me become the woman I was called to be in Christ Jesus. I no longer have to do life alone,” said Janet Staat Goedhart, a member of the Lemons to Laughter ministry.
Three years later, the ministry has seen an average of 25 women gathering monthly at each lunch. They laugh with one another, talk about each other’s spouses, and offer encouragement.
As the ministry grew, one of the surprises has been that many attendees have not been members of Canyon Hills Church. Some have not even been believers. Eileen and others have invited neighbors, and some non-widowed women have been considerate enough to sign up to bring a friend who has lost their spouse, knowing it would be beneficial for them. What a beautiful way to introduce someone to the most comforting love of all: the love of Jesus.
Serving Without Further Wounding
Most churches want to become involved in caring for the widow, but many aren’t sure how. Eileen’s best advice for church leadership is to seek a woman who has gone through the loss of her husband and is on the path to healing to be a leader in this area. The same can be said about men (widowers) who often don’t receive the same kind of care.
With one million new widows every year, averaging age 56, the opportunity for ministry in this area is plentiful. Research shows that more than half of those recently widowed will not attend the church they attended with their spouse, because the memories are too painful to bear. This means it is vitally important that churches are attentive to new widows in their congregations.
Eileen suggests asking questions and listening patiently. Don’t avoid the topic of a deceased spouse. Chances are someone who has lost their husband or wife is grateful to talk about them. It’s a comfort to know they haven’t been forgotten by everyone.
A few tips to help your church offer meaningful care for widows:
- Church leadership should identify a woman, or man, who has gone through the pain of losing her spouse and is on a path of healing to lead their Widow’s ministry.
- Keep in mind, widows can be young. Though the bulk might be in their 60s and 70’s, there are a significant number of widows in their 40’s and even younger with spouses who have passed away unexpectedly.
- Every loss is different, so grief ministries should not be combined into one large group. There are different factors at play with every type of loss.
- Team up with men’s ministries to offer “chore” services to your female widows’ ministry. Ministries like Lemons to Laughterprovide a “honey-do” list to their church’s men’s ministries so widows can receive help with more difficult chores around the house.
- Don’t forget the men in your congregation that have lost a spouse. On average a surviving male spouse will die within 6-18 months of their wife’s death. Caring for them is just as important. *(Chicago Tribune, 1994)
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. — James 1:27
– By Crissy Sanchez-Cochran
CityServe is a collaborative network of churches and community leaders connected to help those in need live better lives. CityServe empowers the local church to fulfill its purpose to overcome despair and transform lives by resourcing them with tangible goods and capacity building. CityServe brings the church to the table to address community challenges by offering long-lasting relationships that lead to transformation and has been designated a “Community of Faith and Opportunity” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For more information about CityServe and its initiatives, please visit www.cityserve.us or on social platforms @cityservehq.