From Widow’s Grief to New Life

Dr. Buffy Barkley next to a statue of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

Mired in grief over the loss of her husband, this college professor found a kindred spirit in another widow: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.

On July 17, 2004, I walked my daughter Katie down the aisle of Bellarmine Chapel in Cincinnati. On April 9, 2011, I walked my daughter Annie down the aisle of St. Clare Chapel. A few months later, on July 23, I did the same for my daughter Liz at Holy Cross-Immaculata Church. Each time, I did it alone.

Like other widows, I have embraced both the bitterness and joys of my life without my late husband, Scott. The marriages of my three daughters, all after his death in 1999, have been among the joys I cherish, as other widowed friends treasure high points in their children’s lives: graduations, sports triumphs, pregnancies and births. Each year, more and more women and men in my life join the ranks of the widowed. All have their own stories, mostly shared privately with intimate friends.

But the rank of “literary widows” is also on the rise. First on the scene: Joan Didion’s National Book Award-winning The Year of Magical Thinking. I’ve always admired Didion as a writer, and as I read the book, some sections did resonate, but more often I found myself, as a writer, envying her elegant and poignant style.

Recently, I received a book about widows from a friend: Antonia Fraser’s Must You Go?, a memoir of her years with Harold Pinter and, ultimately, of his illness and death. Again, I admired the craft of her writing. My judgment of the book was echoed in the words of a friend, a recent widower, when he finished reading it: “It’s sad.” As fascinated as I’ve been by these memoirs of writer-widows, I wondered whether any writer had not only shared the pain of widowhood, but had also allowed readers a glimpse into how she had moved through her grief to new life.

The answer was on my bookshelf: the collected writings of St. Elizabeth Bayley Seton. In looking back over my years of widowhood, I realize my own emotional and spiritual journey has mirrored Elizabeth’s. Although the details of her plunge into grief and eventual resurrection differ from mine, key elements in her life offer a guide for returning to wholeness after the devastating loss of a spouse.

First Taste of Grief

Elizabeth lived and died several centuries before me. Still, she’s a saint easy to connect with, especially for widows. How she loved her William, her best friend and “dearest treasure.” They reveled in each other’s company, doting on their five children, even finding time in their young marriage to share reading and music: Elizabeth playing the piano to accompany his violin.

After the death of William’s father, Elizabeth supported him as he struggled to keep the family’s shipping business solvent. She stood by his side through his humiliating bankruptcy. The daughter of a prominent New York physician, by 1800 Elizabeth was describing her reduced financial and social situation to her friend Julia Scott: “I have this last week, given up my list to the Commissioners of Bankruptcy of all we possess, even to our and the children’s clothing.”

Three years later, with William’s health deteriorating from tuberculosis, they boarded a ship for Italy, desperately hoping he would bounce back with a change of climate. Eight-year-old Anna Maria accompanied them, while the four younger children remained with relatives in New York.

The trip did not end well. Arriving in Leghorn, their ship was hauled into the harbor where the Seton family was quarantined because of fears that they were carrying infection from America. At the end of the required 30 days in cramped, dank quarters, it was clear that Elizabeth’s husband was dying.

William was eager to see Pisa, though a physician warned that the trip might kill him—and it did. On Dec. 27, 1803, Elizabeth wrote in a journal to her “soul sister” Rebecca, William’s sister: “Oh, Oh, Oh, what a day. —close his eyes, lay him out, ride a journey, be obliged to see a dozen people in my room till night—and at night crowded with the whole sense of my situation—O MY FATHER and MY GOD the next morning at 11 all the English and Americans in Leghorn met at the grave house and all was done.

‘Hazard yet Forward’

The realization that life has changed in some dramatic way may take a while to sink in. My husband’s death was as predictable as William’s. Diagnosed in July 1999 with aggressive brain cancer, Scott underwent surgery and, three months later, six weeks shy of his 53rd birthday, my best friend and father of our three children was dead. The immediate cause listed on his death certificate was “adult onset pneumonia.”

Although Scott’s death was inevitable, the swiftness of it took us by surprise. Once admitted to the hospital, he never regained consciousness, but we knew by the tears flowing down his cheeks during our farewell prayer in the hospital that he sensed we were with him during his final hours.

Like Elizabeth, I had no choice but to move on. She returned to New York to raise her five children; my three daughters were 13, 15 and 18 and needed a mother now more than ever. Early in my widowhood, I drew inspiration from words I remembered from the Seton family crest: “Hazard yet forward.” The “hazards” were all around me: How could I protect and nourish my children? Would I be financially secure enough to keep them in the home they loved? How would I cope with the daily frustrations of car repairs, clogged drains and a sick family pet?

Moving forward was made a little easier when, like Elizabeth, I relied on my friends, stayed in touch with my spiritual core and turned outward when the urge was to hibernate in grief.

How lucky for the orphaned Seton children that they had a mother like Elizabeth: nurturing, protective, well-read, creative and fearless. How lucky for Elizabeth that she had friends to support her as she rebuilt her life.

Elizabeth Ann Bayley was 19 when she married William Magee Seton, 25. The couple had five children. William died in 1803 in Italy, and two years later Elizabeth became a Catholic. In 1809, she founded the U.S. Sisters of Charity in Emmitsburg, Md. (CNS photo/The National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton)

Although her sister-in-law Rebecca died in 1804, Elizabeth had forged new friendships in Italy with the Filicchis—Antonio, Amabilia and Filippo. It was through them that she was first introduced to the “real presence” of the Eucharist. A year after her return to the States, she left the Episcopal Church into which she had been baptized and embraced Catholicism—frowned upon as the religion of lower-class
immigrants in New York.

Through the years the Filicchis offered advice—spiritual and practical—especially as Elizabeth fretted over her two sons’ inability to find a profession for which they were suited.

Longtime friends Eliza Sadler and Julia Scott remained a sustaining force in Elizabeth’s life as she carved out a niche for herself as educator and Sister of Charity. Elizabeth’s letters to both bear marks of a settled friendship: They are at times playful and, at others, drenched in grief.

She turned to pen and paper during Anna Maria’s illness to reflect on her daughter’s final days. To Eliza, she wrote: “It is true the dear, lovely and excellent child of my heart is on the point of departure—the last week she has been every moment on the watch, expecting every coughing fit would be the last, but with a peace resignation and contentment of soul truly consoling.”

Weeks after her daughter’s death, she sent Julia (whom Anna called “Aunt Scott”) a letter thanking her for money for her daughter, but more for her enduring friendship: “How true a comfort have I left when possessed of such a friend as you are.”

How could I have survived these last years without my friends? Their support began even as Scott lay dying. One friend surveyed local cemeteries, recommending a site I was unfamiliar with, then made arrangements with a funeral home—unpleasant tasks that had been on Scott’s and my to-do list once he finished radiation.

Later, this same friend intervened with our pastor to allow another friend, an ordained minister, to deliver the funeral homily. A longtime friend in my neighborhood, employed in the men’s clothing industry, helped me choose an outfit for Scott. He also took his clothes to the cleaner’s and delivered them to the funeral home.

Over the past decade, friends (among them, my five sisters and three daughters) have allowed me to heal. They have shared books, movies, vacations and afternoons at the theater. Two married couples regularly welcome me as a third for dinners. One of my gay friends refers to himself as my “permanent date.” In celebrating and remembering the days before widowhood—anniversaries of Scott’s death, his birthday, our wedding—my friends acknowledge that he is still a part of my life, though no longer present to me in the same way.

Beyond This World

With the support of her friends, Elizabeth survived the challenges of raising children, becoming the family breadwinner and dealing with sometimes difficult clergy as she established her community of women religious. But there was an intangible reality beyond this earth that sustained her in a different way: her religious faith.

Even before William’s death, she had a deep life of prayer and worship through Trinity Episcopal Church in New York. As a busy mother and wife, she read religious books. Her journals and letters make frequent reference to the sermons of the Rev. John Henry Hobart, whose preaching she looked forward to every Sunday. After her conversion to Catholicism, she took comfort in the Eucharist as she faced the challenges of holding the Seton family together.

To Amabilia Filicchi, who had prayed Elizabeth through the decision to become Catholic, she wrote: “The heavy cloud has given place to the sun shine of peace. You may suppose my happiness in being once more permitted to kneel at his altar, and to enjoy those foretastes of heaven he has provided for us on earth, now everything is easy, poverty, suffering, displeasure of my friends all lead me to him, and only fit my heart more eagerly to approach its only good.”

A few years later, she wrote to her sister-in-law Cecilia: “So this bread of angels removes my pain, my cares, warms, cheers, soothes, contents and renews my whole being.”

Time after time, in her “instructions” to the Sisters of Charity and her letters to friends, Elizabeth made clear that the Eucharist was the center of her life, the source of her strength as she awaited her own death, when she would be united with Jesus and reunited with her “Seton.”

On his deathbed William said, “When you are all again together don’t say poor William for I shall be in heaven, and trust you will come to me, and make my darlings always look for me there.”

Guided by Faith

Just as William was certain that he would be reunited with Elizabeth and his children after their deaths, I know with certainty that Scott is still present with us. To nonbelievers this may seem delusional, but I have felt his presence at so many critical junctures in my life.

As I left the hospital the morning of Scott’s death, a friend urged, “Stop. Turn around. Look at that glorious sunrise. It is Scott’s gift to you. Think of him at every sunrise.” I do, with great peace. I find a similar peace each Sunday during Mass. I confess that I do not share Elizabeth’s awe for the Real Presence. My comfort comes from the whole of the Mass: the music, the words of Scripture, a homily that hits just the right theme, the fellowship at the greeting of peace.

A friend recently asked why, given so many disagreements I have with the church, I remain Catholic. My answer was simple: “My faith nourishes me.”

Turning Outward

After William’s death, Elizabeth faced the daunting reality of feeding and clothing her children. But she still found time to reach out to others. She wrote Antonio that she “passed half an hour with the sick man who is a Catholic for whom you gave me the dollars—the pleasure of consoling him and conversing with the poor honest family he lives with recompensed the trouble of my walk tenfold.”

Throughout her life, Elizabeth kept vigil at the bedsides of the many dying friends and relatives who requested her as a comforter at the end of their lives.

Always a mother to her children first, she became “mother” to the children at her school in Emmitsburg, Md., the wealthy and the poor learning side by side. Through the Sisters of Charity, “Mother Seton” would leave a legacy of her commitment to service.

The 1812 regulations for the Order make her priorities clear: “One of their chief employments being to assist the sick poor, they shall fulfill this duty with every possible care and affection, recollecting that it is not so much upon them as on Jesus Christ that they bestow their services.”

Alone, but Not Lonely

As my daughters marry and start their own families, I am faced with the challenge of the empty nest, for which Scott and I had so longed. Sadly, Robert Browning’s poetic invitation to “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be” eluded us in Scott’s dying so young.

But as a widow in my now-empty nest, I have the luxury of time to pursue causes I believe in. I can offer college classes that get me home late after a nighttime symphony, or I can accompany students to New York to learn about the life of Elizabeth Seton and the work of the United Nations. I can deliver meals to Habitat for Humanity workers or knock on doors to promote political candidates whose views mirror my commitment to social justice.

I cannot change the reality of Scott’s death. As Rabbi Harold Kushner writes, “In the final analysis, the question of why bad things happen to good people translates itself into some very different questions, no longer asking why something happened but asking how we will respond, what we intend to do now that it has happened.”

Elizabeth Seton chose not to rail at God over William’s death. Her response was to turn this tragedy on its head, using her energy to refashion her life in ways she had never envisioned. Each widow must find her own way out of grief, but Elizabeth offers a model—a promise of hope—that though the sadness will never leave, it will subside, making way for new joys and meaning.

Sidebar: Tips for Healing

When a spouse dies, words are sometimes less important than others’ caring embraces. By doing some figurative “embracing” of their own, widows and widowers can begin to move from hurting to healing.

Embrace your sadness. Cry. Cry alone. Cry with friends. If you get stung by a bee, your natural reaction is to cry. The sting over the loss of a loved one is far greater. Let it out. Don’t be embarrassed to cry around friends.

Embrace your memories. Pray for your loved one, by name, on special occasions. View photos or home videos to remind you of those years together. Get tickets for you and your children when his or her favorite musician books a concert near you. Re-watch his or her favorite movies and don’t be afraid to cry.

Embrace your “now.” The past is over. The future is not yet yours. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us: “Our appointment with life is in the present moment. If we do not have peace and joy now, when will we have peace and joy?”

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