But the end comes sooner than later for some couples, either by death or by divorce, and life as they knew it must be reshaped to a new reality—being single again.
"It never occurred to me to think about the death part," said Snell, who now lives in Jacksonville, Fla. "Then through the years as I began to face life-and-death issues with others, I always 'planned' to be the first to die because I observed it was much easier for men. Statistics show that men are able to rebuild a life with another much easier than women because of the numbers. … And because I loved him so much, I knew others would love him, too. Well, that was the plan."
Unfortunately, her plan didn't work out the way she had hoped. She was right about the numbers—according to the U.S. census, there are more than four times as many widows as there are widowers. But she was the one left.
That poses a real challenge for society in general and the church in particular. But Snell found both the church she and her husband were attending and the church where he had been a longtime pastor to be real sources of comfort for them as they dealt with his illness and subsequent death.
"The churches where we had served and where we were members could not have been more loving and supportive through the illness and the initial grief period," Snell said. "They wrapped loving, supportive, arms around me and my family and held us secure. It was a very tangible presence of God's love."
There were three memorial services, and the church family in each helped with all the planning and arrangements.
"Such a wonderful tribute to him and comfort to me," she recalled. "Since the illness had been long and very painful, they were there every step of the way, and following his death, they initially continued to 'be there.'"
Even though they have continued to affirm the grief process, Snell said, the challenge has become more difficult for her as she seeks to find the place of new relationship—as a single.
"This is a two-way struggle," she asserted. "It is a difficult journey to rebuild a life that has been so thoroughly integrated with another—both for the widow and for the church family. There seem to be some of the same issues that occur with a divorce. It is rather painful for all concerned."
Because of the difficulty, often it is just easier to avoid dealing with it, she said. "It has been much easier for me to fill my life with work and avoid the 'life alone' issues. And strangely, it also has been a little easier to meet new people than to pick up the pieces with old friends who related to me as a couple."
As long as the relationships are within the church program and activities, Snell has found the church does a good job of including all who participate. When it comes to life outside, however, she feels the church as individual members might do more.
"As I am experiencing the social structures of life as a widow, I am finding it is more difficult to stay involved," she said, adding that she understands it is a "two-way street."
"I know that I need to be pro-active in making a place, but I think I have also been guilty of thinking that 'life goes on' for those who are alone and not being pro-active in including them in the commom-day activities of life," she said. "I find that, for myself, it is taking a lot of energy, and I have to remain conscious of planning to have others into my home and continue reaching out.
"Remaining alone and having a pity-party is no way to live though, and I think that God calls us to the 'life more abundant,' even through grief. God calls us to others for relationship—without others in our life, we lose touch with God."
If she could offer any advice for congregations seeking to minister to people who have lost their spouses, she would say this: "It is important to know that grief is not over in a few weeks or even at a year. Most of the time, it takes years to rebuild."
For her, the most difficult time is eating alone, so she would encourage members to invite someone who is alone to join them in a meal. Also, including them in couples parties and with families helps bring reality back to life.
But her most important suggestion gets to the very basis of relating—and one of the most dramatic changes for one who has lost a spouse. It is something she thinks is missed and perhaps needed the most.
"Give an affectionate holding of the hand, arm around the shoulder, or hug," she said. "This can go a long way to keep them 'in touch' with a sense of belonging."