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Those who mourn can learn to handle loss in a healthy way and embrace the future with hope.

The loss of a spouse changes a woman's life forever. Instead of being the center of another's universe, the survivor is suddenly alone.

Haunting questions soon surface: "Who am I, since I am no longer Bob's wife or Mrs. so and so?" "Who is going to take care of me?" Younger women left to rear children alone may ask, "How will I make it without Jim's financial and emotional support?"

Research studies have revealed that the death of a partner is the greatest stressor of all losses. Grief, the normal emotional response to loss, produces the utmost stress following the death of one's spouse.

The degree or intensity of grief varies with the age of both the deceased and the survivor, the number of years they were married, and whether or not the relationship was meaningful or troubled at the time of separation. The longer the couple's time together, the more intense the survivor's grief, and an unfinished troubled relationship makes the loss especially difficult for the surviving spouse.

Whether the death was expected (anticipated) or unexpected (acute) also affects the intensity of the grief response. Unexpected and violent deaths produce a more intense grief than expected and nonviolent deaths.

The grief journey is a painful journey, precipitating nights of weeping and joyless mornings, and days when many travelers wonder if they will ever feel hopeful again. It is a highway bulging with "potholes" of darkness, hopelessness and despair. But there is a path that leads to healing for those who embark on this journey.

What is it? How do grieving spouses move from nights of weeping to mornings of joy (see Ps. 30:5) and into days filled with hope? The book of Ruth provides the perfect example of a "redemptive grief journey." In it we read about two widows--Naomi, an older widow, and Ruth, a young widow.

THE GRIEF RESPONSE Naomi had it all. She was beautiful, as her name implies. She married a handsome and prosperous man, and they had two adorable sons. When famine stole into Bethlehem, Naomi's husband, Elimelech, loaded the wagons and moved his family to Moab. There he could protect them from hunger and continue providing them with a comfortable lifestyle. Soon after settling in Moab, Elimelech died, and Naomi suddenly became a single mom with two sons to raise.

The Scriptures do not refer to Naomi's grief following her husband's death. Perhaps Naomi played the role of a "steel magnolia," refusing to become vulnerable to grief's demands for payment. Or maybe she believed she had to be strong for the boys, Mahlon and Chilion. She could have buried herself in the role of sole provider--refusing to stop long enough to feel and express her grief.

Whether she loses a spouse through death or divorce, a single mother has scant time to grieve. Even so, grief's motto is "pay now or pay later."

As they came of age the two sons married Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. Then tragedy visited Naomi again. Both sons died. The historic author sums up Naomi's plight with, "and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband" (Ruth 1:5, NIV).

Being "left without" is a vibrant description of loss. Naomi was first left without her husband and then without her two sons, all within a 10-year period (see v. 4), and grief was demanding satisfaction. The reality of her aloneness turned her thoughts toward her former home, bringing into focus the faces of friends and relatives, a community of believers in the true God, and feelings of safety, security, love and belonging--all the things needed by a grieving widow (see vv. 6-8).

Naomi was wise in allowing her heart to guide her through her grief. "With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would bring them back to the land of Judah" (v. 7). What a beautiful metaphor of leaving the past and moving toward the future!

Although neither Naomi nor Ruth were aware of it, they were being led by the Spirit toward their destiny in God's plan of redemption when they left Moab and journeyed toward Bethlehem. The Holy Spirit can lead us in many ways: through life situations such as loss or illness, emotions, the Word, prayer, discernment and prophecies.

Ruth's is one of many biblical stories that reveals how God uses circumstances to press us toward His redemptive purposes through our losses (see Rom. 5:3-4; 8:28). As a result of losing their husbands, both Naomi and Ruth played a significant role in God's redemptive plan for humankind.

Grief began to have its way with Naomi when she packed her belongings and headed home. Reality had replaced denial by the time she reminded her daughters-in-law that her sons--their husbands--were dead (see Ruth 1:8).

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