“Sing to God, praise His name; exalt the rider of the clouds. Rejoice before Him whose name is the Lord. Father of the fatherless, defender of widows” (Ps 68:5–6).
Sacred Scripture speaks of widows and how the Lord who loves the lowly and the poor will surely come to their aid. Jesus Christ Himself saved such a woman from Nain who, aside from being widowed, also lost her only son. Out of pity for her, he raises the young man back to life (Lk 7:11-17). The miracle not only points to Christ’s tender mercy as God but also to His compassion in the face of a human experience He knew all too well. His own mother was after all a widow too.
The fourth session of the DBCS Ongoing Formation Series for 2016, which was held on October 10, focused on the situation of widows and widowers, and how the Church can accompany their families in the spirit of Amoris Laetitia. The value of the ministry directed to widows, widowers, and their families is indeed great, considering the devastating impact of the loss of a spouse ― and a father or a mother.
A Widow’s Plight
Regina “Gay” Munarriz, Director of Everest Academy in Santa Rosa, has been a widow for 15 years now. Aside from sharing her own personal experience, she also talked about data, facts, and figures on widows, which can be very alarming.
In the Philippines, in 2010 ― during which the population was 92.3 million ― statistics showed that 3.017 million women are widows. A report from the United Nations and The Loomba Foundation (which takes up the cause of widows) says that there are 245 million widows worldwide, and almost half are living in poverty.
Furthermore, widows, especially in certain cultures, are vulnerable to abuse, rape, and violence. All this in addition to the fact that the loss of a spouse is a primary cause of stress and can lead to disrupted sleep, illness, and a high risk of death for the widow herself.
“There is a sting in my heart because of the plight of many widows around the world,” Regina said. The “staggering loss” that a widow (or widower, for that matter) undergoes and its snowball effect cannot be denied.
Certainly, the children are not spared from the effects. Loss of a parent or loved one can be an obstacle to their growth, maturity, and stability. In the United States, for example, many teens who end up in jail are orphaned by at least one parent and many criminals on death row lost a significant loved one when they were young.
Looking at these facts, Regina said, “It is a miracle that I am here today.” And she credits the Lord, her parents and siblings, as well as her Catholic community for helping her through the difficult journey.
Devastation and Hope
Regina lost her husband, Mike, in 2001. He suffered from cardiac arrest after a surgery, and passed away after being in a coma for two weeks. It was a terrible ordeal for Regina, especially since at the time she was nine-months pregnant with their second child.
Like her, Queeny Velasco, an entrepreneur, is also a widow. Her husband was the gifted artist, Joey Velasco, who painted many inspired works of art, including the famous Hapag ng Pag-Asa, even if he did not have any formal training in painting. He passed away in 2010 due to kidney cancer. They have four children.
Meanwhile, Atty. Paul Hildawa, a senior partner at Hildawa & Gomez Law Office who has a passion for songwriting, lost his wife, Riza, to breast cancer in 2012. They have three kids.
Their stories of loss and hope must resonate with so many who have also lost a husband or wife early in life. Paul put it very well when he said that their “plan to grow old together vanished.”
Coping with the loss is hard. This will mean, asking questions like, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or “Why did God take the mother (or father) of my children?” Questions that do not seem to have any answers, as Paul shared.
Among the painful realities is having to raise the children on their own, and to experience life’s milestones and important events ― such as a child’s first day of school, or his graduation ― without one’s spouse to share it with.
Raising a child not only requires parents to be good teachers but also good providers. And a single-income household in today’s world is not always ideal. There are so many financial needs that need to be covered, including education. The single parent would have to do a very good balancing act because work may require a lot of time away from the children who naturally need a lot of attention. Being able to balance earning a living and being a mother (father) is crucial, said Regina.
This does not mean, however, that widows or widowers think of their children as burdens. On the contrary, they are gifts. “They are a blessing to me,” Queeny said. “They give me strength and the reason to go on.” A conviction that Regina and Paul also share.
In fact, children have a special role to play in helping their parents not just to go on but also to thrive in the face of loss. Sometimes, they provide nuggets of wisdom, in spite of their young age, as Paul shared about his daughter; or they inherit so much of the wonderful traits of the spouse who passed away like Regina’s two children; they can also be selfless and generous in serving others like Queeny’s children who voluntarily help out in the Joey Velasco Foundation (JVF) that helps indigent families and their children.
Family members and relatives are an important support system for widows and widowers. “Without my parents and in-laws, I couldn’t have managed to start again,” said Regina. Thanks to her father and brothers, her children have more than one father figure in their lives.
Coping with the loss of a spouse and moving forward with one’s life takes different forms for different people; every situation is unique. For Paul, it was helpful to keep a journal, where he recorded the dreams he had of his wife after she died. It was a way of expressing and processing the grief.
In certain cases, it helps if the surviving spouse and the children move to a new location to start again, to start anew. This was Regina’s experience. “We transferred to a new home, and I moved from the corporate world to education ― I wanted to master being the best mother and teacher for my children because they no longer have a daddy.”
In other cases, it helps to remain in the same place, the same community, to continue the legacy of the deceased spouse. For Queeny, after Joey died, her “way of expressing love for him is to support the Hapag community that was so dear to him [they are the beneficiaries of JVF, which Queeny heads as president]. They are now teaching me a lot of things. They taught me how to be sensitive, to be patient, to listen.” She has also maintained ties with her husband’s close friends.
Comfort and Support
Where is the Church in all this? How has the Church and their Catholic Christian community supported Regina, Queeny, and Paul?
“Mike and I met in Lingkod ng Panginoon, and then eventually we became part of Ligaya ng Panginoon,” said Regina, who credits their community for giving them the much-needed support when her husband suddenly passed away.
“My community is my second family,” she shared. Not only did they accompany Regina and Mike when he was hospitalized, they also helped make the arrangements for the wake, funeral, and burial. Moreover, they also helped to raise funds for the hospital bills. “I felt so loved and I experienced Christ, thanks to the community…. My decisions from Mike’s death until this day have been guided, thanks to a strong community life.”
Queeny also seeks enlightenment, comfort, and strength from her spiritual director, a religious sister, and from priest-friends who offer support and encouragement to her and her children. Through their help, she learned “to pray and be still ― in silence we will find God, this is my most powerful weapon as a widow.”
Paul noted that priests are sometimes constrained when they give comfort to grieving families. Since he was once a seminarian, he understands that gestures of physical intimacy like embraces or hugs are avoided as part of the rules of seminary life. (This does not appear to be an issue for religious sisters who readily embrace the grieving.) But in the real world, where people ― even men ― who are in grief need to be consoled, it is hoped that priests who are spiritual fathers are able to discern and choose the compassionate response without fear and with the certainty of grace, as pastoral charity would entail.
He further added a “wish list” for the Church when it comes to ministering to widows and widowers, which include the following: providing a shoulder to cry on and a very human encounter with those who are grieving; compassion and kindness from priests in the Sacrament of Confession; catechesis on the afterlife, on how we can still relate with our beloved departed, and how to understand heaven, purgatory, hell.
Ultimately, the presence of God and His love is the strength and consolation of every widow and widower.
Regina has taken Psalm 146 as her prayer, and especially takes comfort from v. 9: “The LORD protects the resident alien, comes to the aid of the orphan and the widow, but thwarts the way of the wicked.” These words were made concrete in her life. “God has helped me feel His presence and love in so many ways that really humbled me,” she shared.
And indeed, God is good and He is truly there at every stage of the journey. Queeny shared that she already experienced God’s love and mercy even while Joey was sick. And although his death was truly an incalculable loss for her, she found strength in trusting the Lord. “I told my children, let us accept God’s will with a smile in our hearts. God will not abandon us. Let us continue to do good. God always provides, even the things that we don’t ask for.”
While it may be true that “you don’t ever get over” such a painful loss, our Catholic faith teaches us that death does not have the last say, thanks to Our Risen Lord. Ultimately, as Regina said, “God’s promise is hope for the future. Our resurrection. The current trial is a temporary situation. God’s master plan will reunite us again” with our dearly departed.
Maria Divina Solano, MRS, MATh is a graduate of DBCS. She is a guest professor and Research Coordinator and Consultant.