Widows and Depression

Taken from From One Widow to Another, ©2009 by Miriam Neff. Used with permission of Moody Publishers.

The statistics on depression and widows are, indeed, depressing. However, as you read this, remember, we are not defined by numbers!

One third of women upon becoming widows meet the criteria for clinical depression within two months. One year later one half of those are still clinically depressed. While some may be surprised by this, I think it is to be expected considering the importance of this event and the nature of depression.

First may I offer you a definition of depression that may be new to you?

Depression is a normal reaction to loss, crisis, or any traumatic event.

Psychologists and medical doctors generally agree on the definition and describe it in terms of observable symptoms. They speak of clinical depression (i.e. when the normal reaction to loss, crisis, or any traumatic event intensifies, and the symptoms interfere with normal, productive living) which typically includes:

  1. moodiness (or sadness)
  2. painful thinking (negative thoughts about self, lack of motivation, indecision)
  3. physical symptoms of sleeplessness and loss of appetite
  4. anxiety resulting in irritability
  5. delusional thinking

Of these five symptoms it seems to me that most are normal, to be expected, and quite appropriate given the immensity of our loss!

So here’s some good news about depression:

It’s normal. (We are not crazy!)

It’s manageable. (We will move through it.)

It’s treatable. (For some, medical and/or therapeutic assistance is needed and helpful.)

What causes it?

In order NOT to experience the symptoms of depression, we would need to be robots!

Our traumatic event that triggers depression is obviously the loss of our husband. Our friends and acquaintances know and acknowledge that. What they do not see or know, and sometimes we ourselves are taken by surprise, are the myriad of other losses that accompany no longer having our husband in our life. Our circle of friends, our routine, our social life, the size of our income, possibly our home since moving is sometimes necessary or beneficial, our travel plans, our shared goals, our dreams. The list grows the more we ponder it. In order NOT to experience the symptoms of depression, we would need to be robots!

I have a new friend in her second year of widowhood. She is vivacious, energetic, and to outside appearances, parenting her five children splendidly. However, it’s hard! Sometimes in her secret moments she says, “O.K. Darrell it’s time for you to show up now. This is too much!”

Would anyone blame her for momentarily thinking, “His plane will land.” “This has just been an overlong meeting.” For those of us who have caught ourselves watching the driveway an 6:15 pm, we understand. Delusional? Not given our loss; this is normal.

Why are our experiences so different?

There is a growing body of research on depression in widows. As I read the information, I found much of the ‘research findings’ to be common sense. Research shows that the incidence and extent of depression depends on the length of our marriage and the quality of that relationship. (Of course!) Women who had had longer satisfying marriages were more likely to experience depression than those who had been married for less years, and/or their marital relationship was not as intimate a bond at best or troubled and dysfunctional at worst. (Naturally.) I have known women who were contemplating divorce when their husbands became terminally ill. Yes, their recovery appeared faster, understandably. They were already prepared to give up what they lost.

Research shows that the extent of depression depends in part on a person’s physical and mental health at the time of her loss, as well as her network of friends.

We don’t move into the trauma of our loss with a blank life slate. Women who have struggled with depression prior to this crisis often are back in the struggle. How did we face crisis in our past? Most of us, by this time, have had other trauma’s to face: post-partum depression, an unexpected, unwanted move, heartbreak over a child’s choices, divorce, or the death of others we cared for deeply. How did we move forward?

Healthy recovery ALWAYS REQUIRES that we change. With a change in life, crisis, trauma, or whatever, we must change to accommodate the new reality or hurt forever.

Those tools we used in the past to move forward positively, given our loss, can be summoned again to help us today. The extent of depression can be impacted by using successful tools from our past and developing new ones.

So, how do we move through depression? Hopefully of the following ideas, at least a few, will be helpful for you if depression is your struggle.

Accept the fact that events in real living may result in depression. We are not guaranteed a ‘no trauma’ life and we’ve been hit by one of the biggest. Therefore, depression is normal; there’s no need to feel guilty about being normal. Feeling guilty that you are depressed serves no positive purpose. In my observation, Christians are especially good at feeling guilty about being depressed! Give it up, sister!

When depression waves its flag, pay attention. The symptoms of clinical depression should be addressed. You may be able to address them on your own. If not, seek counsel and/or medical intervention. Many widows find that an antidepressant is helpful for shortened periods of time when their emotions are interfering with daily living.

Make adjustments. For example, to remain sad over reduced income does not fix the problem. That’s why this website includes information on our finances. We learn, we change, we budget. We can learn to be content with what we have. Grieving our lost friendships does not need to lead to depression. We forgive, let go, and enjoy our smaller social network and a few close friends. I am not surprised that half of the widows who experience depression are still depressed a year after their loss. Change takes time. No one else can dictate your schedule. There are so many necessary changes. If it were as easy as cleaning out the refrigerator, we’d all be dancing in a few months.

Address health issues. You’ll find this tip for each emotion. Depression seems to be especially connected to other health issues. The hospitalization rate for the recently bereaved is 600 times that of other people. Facing surgery alone, delayed recovery time due to grief, discombobulated living patterns can intensify depression. If your ‘Who cares?’ attitude is preventing you from addressing a health issue, enlist a friend as your support system or accountability partner. Encourage each other with weight goals or daily walking. Small steps are better than no steps. Celebrate and enjoy each accomplishment. God values our bodies. They are important enough to Him that each is an original. We only get one. We can replace some parts, but not the whole thing—in this life.

Remember what professionals can and cannot do

They can:
  • Help you identify sources of your problems
  • Help you clarify and see additional choices you can make
  • Validate straight thinking
  • Prescribe medication when appropriate
They cannot:
  • Change your circumstances
  • Change or fix your past
  • Create your future
  • Change you

A Biblical perspective on depression

I Kings 19 describes behavior by Elijah that meets the criteria for clinical depression. A powerful woman was threatening to murder him! God attended to his physical needs, and gave him new purpose in life. God does not ignore or condemn our feelings. He moves with us, and in us, through them. God continued to use Elijah after his season of despair.

Lamentations 3:19-24 Depression need not consume us. God is always compassionate and gives us a new morning. The new morning is not just the sun rising the next day. It is the new and fresh opportunity that comes with change.

Psalm 145: 14-19 Yes, we fall in the crisis, but we do not stay down. Our Lord takes our hand when we are down and lifts us up.

One third of women upon becoming widows meet the criteria for clinical depression within two months.