When Patty Levison’s husband died in April 2014, the grief was overwhelming.
“It felt like we were always soul mates,” said Levison, an interior and landscape designer from Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
The two had met when Robert Levison was 44, dated for 22 years, were married for 22 years; he died on his 88th birthday.
“Toward the end, he said, ‘It’s time for us to say goodbye. How do we say goodbye?’ … And I said, ‘We say goodbye with a kiss.’ A couple days later, he passed away.”
Barb Stawick experienced a double loss the same year. First, her son died at age 42 from complications of a lung infection.
“They just kept giving him drugs, and one day, he didn’t wake up,” said Stawick, 63, of Bloomfield Township, Mich. Then, her husband succumbed to acute myeloid leukemia a few months later. He’d been in treatment three years.
Numbed by grief, both Levison and Stawick found an unconventional way to cope with their sorrow. They started to dance, and, in the process, found the unexpected support of other women who’d also turned to dancing after similar losses.
“I was in a real serious state of mourning, but dancing allowed me to move freely and to laugh again, and to feel good about myself” said Levison, who dragged her neighbor, Uda Shallop — by then already seven years a widow — to lessons at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Bloomfield Hills. “It gave me a reason to get dressed up, and made up and go out. There’s a tendency to want to stay home in your jammies.
“It’s a great confidence builder, and for people that are a bit on the shy side, coming out and dancing is a great way of breaking the ice.”
There, Levison and Shallop met not only Stawick, but Michelle Allen, 61, of Oxford, Mich., whose husband, Richard Allen, died in 2012.
“I met my husband on the dance floor,” Allen said. “I wanted to be Ginger. I grew up watching those kinds of shows — Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers were always the big ones. I always liked ballroom dance. … It took me a year after his death to get myself to walk back into a studio.
“Until you’ve gone through it, you can’t understand. It helps to find other people who know what you’re going through.”
Indeed, Dr. Monica Starkman, associate professor active emeritus in the department of psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School, said finding others who have experienced similar grief can help to get through the pain.
“There’s a sharing of an experience that makes it feel a less lonely one, and that does provide comfort. I think these women who have found each other are doing what is psychologically useful and will help them move along in the process of mourning. It is a comfort to be with people who know what you’re feeling and you know what they’re feeling,” she said.
The death of a spouse is considered one of the most stressful things that can happen in a lifetime, said Dr. Michelle Riba, professor of psychiatry and associate director at the University of Michigan Depression Center. She referenced the Holmes and Rahe stress scale that measures the effects of major stressors and noted that losing a spouse ranks first.
“What people have to endure is pretty amazing,” Riba said. “I am in awe every day.”
And yet, said Starkman: “It’s a natural thing. We often don’t realize how many people are suffering. But, obviously, in a marriage, somebody has to go first, and somebody has to be left. So there are a lot of people coping with this.”
Statistics show it’s women who are most often left behind. In 2013, 36 percent of all older U.S. women were widows, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And there were more than three times as many widows (8.7 million) as widowers (2.3 million).
For Stawick, following her husband’s prolonged illness, his death and her son’s death, it was important to find a reason to be happy again.
“I think when you go through that long windup period, you’re ready to get back to living. You really are,” she said. “It’s not that you don’t miss your partner.
“Another gal I had met said she and her husband had tried ballroom dance. I said, ‘Wow, that is something I have always wanted to do.’ ”
So in late June, Stawick, who works for ACE Group insurance, found herself at the Fred Astaire studio.
“I was really apprehensive about walking in the door,” she said. “This was very out of the box for me. I kept telling myself, ‘what are you worried about? You sit in front of Fortune 500 accounts, why are you nervous?’ ”
Now she dances five days a week, and will perform in a dance competition in January on a cruise she’s taking with some of her newfound friends.
“It’s so joyous. I really come here to get my joy back,” she said. “This has really helped me, tremendously find joy.”
Dr. Phil Lanzisera, a clinical psychologist at the Henry Ford Hospital Outpatient Psychiatry Clinic, said people should understand that grief knows no timetable.
“It’s highly variable, but what characterizes grief is the ebb and flow,” he said. “In natural grief, well-progressing grief, individuals will feel horribly lost in the beginning, dashed and hopeless. But with the help of family and friends who assist them to continue to participate in social activities, they begin to recognize that life continues, that there are opportunities for life experiences, that other relationships are important and matter. It’s kind of a start and stop type of thing. You are alone, something reminds you of your loved one. You cry, you feel terrible. Then you get hooked on some type of activity.
“The important thing is to remain active, and not to allow withdrawal to take over, not to allow yourself to dwell too long on the hurt and the loss, and to remain as engaged in your social surrounds as possible.
“Allow yourself time for grief. Don’t try to stop it prematurely — but rather, when the feelings occur, allow them to happen. Things will remind you of your loss. It’ll be a picture, an article of clothing, a favorite chair, or a television program that you used to like watching together. Allow it to occur and then get on with other activities.”
Allen met not only a new group of friends who’d also lost their husbands, but she also found a new dancing partner in Alan Brenner.
She’d stopped into a local dance studio for a lesson in 2014, but realized she had gotten her dates mixed up. She saw Brenner waiting for his own lesson.
“We started talking. And he goes, ‘Well, I’m just trying to start to get back into socializing a little bit.’ It caught my heart because that’s what I used to tell people. I said ‘Oh, my name is Michelle and I’m a widow.’ So he took my hand. And he goes, ‘I’m a widower.’ Then we determined that my husband died in September, and his wife died in December.
“So we said, ‘why don’t we exchange phone numbers and maybe go for coffee sometime?’ I walked out to the parking lot, and I said to myself, ‘Well, if he calls, he calls.’
“He called that night. … We met over at Somerset mall for coffee, and when he saw me, he took my hand, kissed my cheek, and we’ve never stopped smiling since.”
Mental health experts agree that one way to cope with loss is to try something new — whether it’s dancing or bowling, a book club or bridge club or signing up for a class.
“What might be good for one person might not be good for another,” Riba said. “As a community, we have to help one another get to where the goal is at the right time and pace and with some help.”
Support groups through a local hospital, organizations like Gilda’s Club of Metro Detroit or a person’s religious community can also help, though the experts agree that professional help could be needed if a person isn’t seeing even incremental improvements over time with grief, if a person is becoming suicidal, having difficulty sleeping, experiencing loss of appetite or is showing other signs of depression.
“These people when they took their ballroom dancing, they just found each other,” Starkman said. “That’s the thing. You have to look for something that’s going to be so interesting to you, something you want to learn and engage in even though you’re grieving, and that’s going to be different for everybody.”
Being active and learning something new can take your mind off the grief.
“It also provides a bit of pleasure. That’s also important,” she said.
“Physical exercise is another thing, however little energy one may have, it’s important to try. Physical exercise is important in treatment of depression. It’s the same thing for grief. Get the physical body moving, even if it’s just for 10 minutes.”
For these women, dance is the perfect prescription for grief recovery, Starkman said: “It’s exercise, it’s social, it’s learning something new. It partakes in all the things that are helpful and useful.”
Levison is grateful for the friendships she’s made while waltzing, doing the rumba and the tango.
“We have gotten together for drinks, and dinner, It’s really been fun. I thought it would be more of a singular kind of experience, but I’ve met so many friends, especially going on competitions. It’s such a bonding experience. It’s intense.”