A Healing Place: Camp Widowby Pat Launer October 29, 2019
There are tons of camps for kids. There are even camps for adults (my husband and I went to a week-long art-camp-in-the-woods).
But here’s one that was a total surprise to me: Camp Widow®. And it isn’t at all as maudlin as it may sound.
Just to show how upbeat it is, the event is organized by Soaring Spirits International, a non-denominational nonprofit created because “no one should have to grieve alone.”
Founder Michele Neff Hernandez was a 35 year-old mother of three when her husband was killed in a cycling accident. With few resources to tap into for support as a young widow, she founded Soaring Spirits in 2008. The next year, she led the first ever National Conference on Widowhood, which later became known as Camp Widow®.
Soaring Spirits, an innovative peer-based grief support organization, has become the world’s largest inclusive network of widowed people. And Camp Widow®, which is held three times a year, always at Marriott hotels (in Florida, California and Canada) attracts folks from all over the world.
The organization uses a very broad definition of ‘widow,’ including anyone who has lost a life partner, regardless of gender, age, religious background, sexual orientation, marital status or length of widowhood.
Typically, more women than men attend camp. The age range is generally between 21 and 83. Lucky for us, the West coast iteration of Camp Widow takes place in San Diego every year.
When Victoria Danzig, a longtime La Jolla Licensed Clinical Social Worker, found out about it, she was intrigued.
She met her husband, otolaryngologist Alan Nahum, 34 years ago. It was an immediate soulmate connection. Neither of them was an impulsive type, but he asked her to marry him two weeks after they met. She spent 20 months as a major caregiver during his decline from a rare form of Parkinson’s Disease. He died in November 2018. He was 87; she was 71.
She took almost immediate action. She participated in the Elizabeth Hospice widows’ groups (she’s still an active, weekly attendee) and saw one of their grief therapists; she joined a closed Facebook grief writing group, Writing Your Grief, from Megan Devine, author of “It’s OK that You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture that Doesn’t Understand,” a book she found enormously helpful.
“When you first lose somebody,” she says, “it’s such a multi-dimensional loss. I couldn’t concentrate. The grief therapist saved my life. I hung on every word.
“I’m a psychotherapist. I thought I knew something about grief. I had no clue.”
The first month after Alan died, she said, “I was desperate. And alone. I had 24-hour care for him at home for 20 months. He took his last breath and everyone left. I didn’t know what to do. The most difficult thing is the aloneness. I feel anonymous. There’s no one to come home to. No interesting, funny, loving, adoring husband. As a therapist friend put it, ‘I am no longer the most important person in someone else’s life.’
“My life was completely different, in every way. I found myself talking out loud, and one day, I was standing in my bedroom and I heard myself saying, ‘When I used to live here…’”
Victoria is not an observant Jew, but she came to appreciate some of the Jewish traditions surrounding death, from kriah, tearing a garment (“the fabric of your life is torn,” she says) to having people around during shiva, to the unveiling (“letting the community know you are still mourning,” as she puts it).
“Grieving shouldn’t be done alone. People need to support each other. I’m a member of a wonderful organization, the American Academy of Psychotherapists. At their summer workshop, I got up and spoke. I said I was a new widow, and that I was looking to talk with other people on this journey and those who might have advice. One psychologist got up and said she’d had lunch with a rabbi who had told her, ‘The death of a spouse is like the burning of a library.’ That was so profound for me. All your memories, jokes, history, little subtleties are gone.
“You have to become courageous. I’m getting so much better at asking for what I need. I still have a hard time that no one mentions Alan. So I mention him. All the time. And I now can do it without any anger or resentment.
“Alan saw me as courageous and competent. I’m just as surprised as he would have been at the level of pain. It just takes you to the floor. Sometimes, I just couldn’t get out of bed. I know the difference between depression and grief. They’re really different sensations.”
Victoria Danzig’s Observations on the Camp Widow Experience:
I was so excited to go. To hear from people who are experts in something I’m just becoming aware of. Alan would’ve been really proud that I was there.
I was very impressed. Being in a room with 350 widows and widowers, with such a wide range of ages, and truly, the most diverse group of people I’ve ever been with, was wonderful. There were people from all over the world. Death does not discriminate.
Right from the beginning, I felt, I’m home. Widowed people aren’t what you think. You know, sad, maudlin, unhappy faces, crying. Yes, there was crying, but there was laughter. Lots of it, though it could be called ‘dark humor.‘
The lectures were inspiring. There were different tracks for where you were in time. I was in the ‘One Year and Under’ group,’ being just 8 months from Alan’s death. We were in stages of widowhood, not of grief.
I saw that people could make it through. We get bigger, we get stronger, when we lift others up.
Forty percent of the people there were returnees. This was the 24th camp. At different times, you have different issues. For those much further along, there were talks on dating. In the early grief group, about 100 people, the speaker asked, How many had problems with: Sleep? Work? Crying? Feeling alone? You looked around and no longer felt like you were crazy.
I learned that I had ‘Widow-Brain.’ I remembered when I put my granola in a jar in the freezer. Nothing about you is the same again.
In the group, we talked about horrible things people say to you, like “How are you doing?’ A much better question is, “How are you doing today?” I used to say, “I’m managing, but it’s a constant struggle.” Now I just say, “I’m managing.”
There are a lot of firsts in the first year: going to a movie alone; going to a restaurant you had gone to together; your husband’s first birthday. I’m going to have a birthday party for Alan. I don’t want to handle that alone.
The real task of this grief process is asking ‘Who am I?’ I have to re-discover who I am, without Alan. The shocking statistic is that, as widows, we lose 70% of our social group, so forming new friends and community is very important. I will treasure that suggestion. I met a friend there I would like to know better. I was with a girlfriend, and I saw some of the members of my support group there. It was great being with my girlfriend, being able to talk about what was really impactful. She realized she’d been taking care of other people her whole life. It was a big Aha for her. She now has to focus on self-care, and starting to say no to things.
My Aha was I have to create a life for myself. I have choice here. What kind of life do I want to create for myself? I want to travel. I want to help other people, maybe around this arena, once I get further along. I want to write about this experience with grief, because I’m so close to it. Because of my background, I’ve allowed myself to be both observer and very much into the pain, loss and deepest, most poignant emotions, allowing myself to wail and cry. I’ve never had an emotion I couldn’t work through before–laughing, walking, talking to a friend. I’ve never had the experience of feeling out of control; it makes you feel crazy.
The coolest thing was, all day Friday and Saturday, there were tables around a large room with topics at each one: ‘We have a widowed person for that.’ So, you could identify the topic and the area that was of interest to you. Topics were, Widowed More Than Once, Without A Child, With Adult Children, Homicide, Suicide, Cancer, Accident. You could meet up with people with the same experience, disease, etc. I ended up at ‘Widowed by Rare Disease.’ That was really good.
People who aren’t widowed try and take away your pain. Camp Widow busted Four Grief Myths:
People say ‘You’re so Strong.’ Or ‘You look so good.’ Or ‘You look happy.’ They don’t see your disturbed sleep or weeping or loneliness.
What’s in the past should stay in the past. The reality is that walking away from the past is not only impossible, but will hinder the facilitation of growth and healing.
Grief is mostly focused on the life that was lived. But you grieve the future as well–the new grandbaby, the travel. All that is gone.
There’s no room for laughter inside grief. Humor sometimes shines a bright light–even if it is dark humor. There was a whole session on Improv. There was a lot about the importance of carving out time for lightness, for being in nature.
Grief is a long road. Being widowed is hard work. I am living with one of life’s most stressful and challenging life experiences. Over and over, I heard how courageous we were to be at Camp Widow.
Would I recommend it? Absolutely!
Something vital I learned: We are on a widow’s walk, but we don’t have to walk alone. I do feel I’m on the right path. I’m doing everything I can to help myself. I want to be the best person I can be at this stage of my life.
Camp Widow® will be held July 17-19, 2020 at the Marriott Marquis & Marina on Harbor Drive in San Diego. Details are at campwidow.org.