I didn’t know what to expect the first time I attended. After John died, I hated having to tick off the box marked “Widow.” It sounded like some sort of evil spider, and the very name made people around me uncomfortable. Yet here I was going to a weekend event specifically for widowed men and women, and it was called Camp Widow.®
What would it be like? Would everyone there be old and cranky? Would we sit around and cry all day? Could I learn anything? Could I contribute what I’d learned myself?
Expectations Fall Away at Camp Widow
It didn’t take long for all of my fears and doubts to vanish. The moment I approached the Camp Widow registration table, I was treated like a special guest. People looked me in the eye — something I realized I missed from so many others when they found out John died. They spoke kindly and reassuringly, and gave me permission to do, wear and be whatever I needed in order to be comfortable.
For the opening session, I sat with more than 300 other widowed people. As I looked around, the diversity of the group amazed me — all ages, cultures, sexual orientations and length of marriage (including several who had been engaged or unmarried but committed to living together for life). I saw quite a significant number whose unlined faces and youthful mannerisms told me they were in their 20s and on the other side of the spectrum were the grey-crested faces of wisdom.
Everything felt so comfortable, because no one had to apologize for their tears, explain their grief to those around them or question their own sanity.
Some had young children, including one man whose wife died in her seventh month of pregnancy but whose daughter survived. Many had older kids or adult children, while others had no children at all. For some, the death was sudden, unexpected and tragic; for others, it had been a long struggle with cancer or another illness that finally took their spouse. A few were widowed only weeks before they came; for others, it had been months or years.
Sharing Their Stories
Throughout the weekend, tissue boxes were everywhere and hugs abounded. Yet this was anything but a depressing cry-fest. People were eager and willing to share their stories and honor the love they had. But their main purpose was to gain wisdom and support as they grappled with the challenges of living without the one with whom they had hoped to spend their lives.
The Camp Widow sessions offered something for everyone, no matter their situation. For instance, many wondered about dating or even finding another love, while others could not yet imagine that concept.
I was particularly moved when one attendee stopped me in the hall and said, “I have to thank you. Because of what you said in that session, I now have a language to describe what I’m experiencing. For the first time in five months, I feel like maybe I’m normal, and I’m going to be OK.”
Regardless of where each person was, they found acceptance, education, guidance, a deep understanding and, most of all, hope. It is possible to handle this. It is possible to go on. It is possible to once again find joy.
In fact, I had never been around so many widowed people and had so much fun! There were plentiful jokes, light-hearted activities, yoga, a formal dinner that allowed for dressing up, and even a dance with an overflowing dance floor. Everything felt so comfortable, because no one had to apologize for their tears, explain their grief to those around them or question their own sanity.
In the end, people walked away with new friends, and the boost they needed to continue building lives that would be very different from what they had planned.
How It Began
All of this is made possible by a nonprofit organization titled Soaring Spirits International. Founded by a determined young widow, Michele Neff-Hernandez, the group now offers three Camp Widow® events a year (in Tampa, San Diego and Toronto), online support, a packet for newly widowed people and a host of other resources. I am so impressed with this organization and all it does for widowed men and women that I am now a member of the advisory board.
In my professional work and also in my personal life, I work to shine a light into the darkness of grief, to educate those who want to support the people they care about when they are grieving and to help people heal. That is also the mission of Soaring Spirits.
If you have been widowed yourself, or if you know anyone else in that situation, check out www.soaringspirits.org. The cost for the three-day weekend event, which is held at a hotel (not in the woods, as the name may imply), ranges from $300 to $399.
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