Dean Miller knows firsthand how difficult life can be after the death of a spouse.
Dean Miller has preached the Gospel all his life.
At 67, he shares a message of hope for widows and widowers. This ministry was born out of the loss of his wife and seeks to lift others and himself out of the depths of sadness and depression.
Miller served churches in Tennessee and Ohio for over 45 years. For 33 of those years, he ministered to the Hartville Church of Christ in Ohio.
A 1976 graduate of Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson,Tenn., Miller married Ruth Ann, his high school girlfriend, at 19. After 33 years of marriage, Ruth Ann was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and suffered eight years of decline. She died Christmas Day 2013 after 41 years of marriage.
After struggling to find himself and his place in a new world of singlehood, Miller began speaking and teaching on widowhood.
In 2014, he launched Widowhood Workshop as a part-time ministry with his family’s help. This year, he transitioned to full-time widowhood ministry under the oversight of the LaVergne Church of Christ in Tennessee.
Dean has three daughters, Michelle Johnson, Melissa Cere (husband Tony) and Deanna Johnson (husband Chris), and five grandchildren.
Given the extreme environment and isolation that many are experiencing during the COVID-19 crisis, what are some specific actions we can take to support the widowed?
This crisis magnifies an already existing problem — social disconnect and isolation. The most effective ministry now may be in using the human voice. One widow shared with me, “It gets old just talking to the dog, because she doesn’t always answer me.”
Call them or FaceTime them. Have a list of things to talk with them about. That conversation will likely reveal their needs. Inquire about their eating habits. Drop food off at their house. Have children tape a picture to their window. Do a version of caroling from their front yard or porch. Do not ask them what they need. Just do things that will let them know they have not been forgotten.
Besides understandable grief at one’s loss, what other emotions do widowed persons experience?
Loneliness is almost always the first emotion discussed in my workshops because attendees commonly associate this with widowhood. The loneliness is unparalleled because marriage is the most precious and intimate of human relationships.
“Do not ask them what they need. Just do things that will let them know they have not been forgotten.”
Uncertainty is another feeling. That uncertainty can fester and turn into fear. Questions about the future can be so overwhelming that one begins to doubt their ability to cope.
Going out in public in a “coupled” world, when you are no longer part of a couple, creates social awkwardness. Anger is common and often targets medical professionals, the departed spouse, even God. Then there is a loss of one’s identity. Previously one was a wife or a husband, half of a whole. Now that whole no longer exists, so who are you? A wide range of emotions is often experienced.
What special needs do the widowed have?
They need not to be forgotten. How many churches even know how many widowed members they have and who they are? Our long- term care leaves much to be desired.
One brother observed that we are good at the three C’s: cards, condolences and casseroles. After that, everybody goes home, but only one goes to their home alone. Widowed people are often socially deprived.Widows need people who minister to them, long after the cemetery, by presence in their lives.
People minister by the “laying on of ears.” There is nothing like the deafening silence in a widowed person’s house at night, especially in the long winter nights. Then, there are those special days when life after loss is more difficult: birthdays, anniversaries and holidays. Forgotten translates into feeling forsaken.
What about widowhood do we all need to be sensitive to?
Please don’t ever tell a widowed person, “I know how you feel,” because we don’t. Life’s losses help us appreciate another’s struggle or even empathize, but to say, “I know how you feel” can almost be offensive.
Also, respect the personal nature of the grief journey. They are going through something they have never experienced. Their behaviors may seem out of character. Healing may take much longer than anticipated. Don’t push. Just walk with them in their grief journey, no matter what, no matter how long.
Does widowhood challenge faith?
It certainly can. The loss of a beloved mate can shake one to their spiritual core. Why did God do this? Or why did he permit this? We may question why we feel so awful, knowing our mate is at home with the Lord. Don’t I have enough faith?
“The loss of a beloved mate can shake one to their spiritual core.”
We can become internally conflicted like the father who brought his troubled son to Jesus: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). It’s not just the loss that can challenge our faith but the difficulty of living daily with the reality of the loss.
Our “feeler” and our faith aren’t always on the same page. Sadly, we are sometimes inclined to give our feelings more credence than our faith. Loss is not a choice, but how we respond to it is. Loss can be what drives us to our knees. It can prompt us to more passionately seek the Lord than ever before. Faith tried can also grow and become stronger (1 Peter 1:6-7; James 1:2-4).
How can churches serve the daily needs of the widowed?
Educate families regarding their responsibility to be the first line of ministry (1 Timothy 5:3-16). However, to minister effectively, education has to be provided to those families about grief, especially the grief experienced in spousal loss.
It pains me to see widowed people sitting alone in our assemblies. As strange as it may seem to the inexperienced, church can be a really hard place for the widowed to go. It’s a blunt reminder of loss. What sweet words: “May I sit with you today?” Help them find a ministry. Often, the person left behind was engaged in a ministry with their spouse.
What is their place in the church now that they are involuntarily single? Launching active local widowhood ministries is so important. These ministries can provide the encouragement widows and widowers need. They help rebuild social networks and even provide that ministry “fit” so important after loss.
Did widowhood change your relationship with your children and grandchildren?
Yes. It brought us closer together, even though we have always been separated geographically.
One evidence of that is the Widowhood Workshop ministry. We call it our “family passion project.” All 11 of us are working together in this ministry doing different things, even the five grandchildren.
They make door prizes for the workshops and serve attendees at our annual summer Widow/Widower Retreat in Middle Tennessee. We talk freely about “Nana” anytime we are together. We have chosen to have our loss bind us together even more closely.
From The Christian Chronicle, June, 2020.
Dean Miller was a key note speaker at the 4th Annual Church Involvement Conference.