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Widows and Wine: A club no one wants to join

Widows run in my family. My maternal grandmother became a widow at the age of 54. She lived the rest of her life, the next 30 years, alone. My aunt, her daughter, lost her husband when she was in her mid-30s and has been a widow for 50 years.

I am descended from these strong and pragmatic women. I realize now that they taught me how to do this, how to rebuild a life after a devastating loss. From them I learned two important lessons: Life goes on and you do what needs doing.

I am fairly certain neither my grandmother nor my aunt ever sat in a circle with other grieving women and talked about their grief. They simply didn’t have the time for it. My grandmother had a farm to run while my aunt had a newborn son to raise. That was not their way.

But it is mine.

While attending local grief support groups, I met other women who had also lost their partners. They told me their stories and I’d share mine. If the term "widow" was mentioned, it was said with a dose of disbelief, as if the words coming out of our mouths must be describing other women who were not us. Yet, there was a mutual understanding and comfort being with others going through similar heartbreak. That’s when the idea for the group, Widows and Wine, was born.

At the first meeting, one woman stated that she was glad to be invited but that it was not a club she wished to belong. The rest of us nodded in agreement as wine and chocolate were passed around.

Over the past six months, this group of women has evolved into a space that feels safe and supportive. Membership has grown as word of mouth passes its existence around. Most of the women’s losses are within the past three years. Some came after long illnesses while others by accident or sudden death. The wounds are often fresh and raw. It takes a tremendous amount of courage just to walk in the door.

Every month, each woman has an opportunity to share her story. Speaking helps to relieve some of the pressure that builds daily. A semblance of control comes from giving voice to your story. It also comes from having others deeply listen without judgment or explanation. The simple truth is that sharing helps lessen the pain of loss, even for a moment.

Many conversations center on the practicalities of loss. What to do with my partner’s possessions? How do I arrange the house? Should I move? How to cope with the economics of being one instead of two? How do I parent or grandparent as a single person? How do I cope with other relationships affected and altered? The list is endless. The list is exhausting.

The dominoes of loss continue to fall, even years later. Every aspect of daily life is affected when your partner dies. When you lose the person who is your daily companion, a person with whom your history is long and your expected future seemed to be without end, you lose a part of yourself.

When the permanence of death sinks in, many of us wonder: How will I go on? Who am I now?

The women who sit in my living room each month have been through the flames of loss and the fire is still hot. They have been burned beyond recognition yet here they still are. Doing what needs to be done, taking care of themselves and their families.

We sit in this circle because we deeply loved and continue to. By doing this we care for ourselves and for the other women in the group by attending each month to talk, to listen and to support.

I imagine my grandmother and aunt sitting in this circle of women. I’d like to think that it would have helped them bear their burdens. I know they would have liked and respected all of these women, just as I do. Even though one or two generations may separate us, ours is a universal story. Strong women have gone ahead of me and showed me the way. It’s a path I wish I didn’t have to follow, yet here I am.

Here we are, in a club none of us ever wanted to join. Life goes on. It’s about time to pass the wine and chocolate.

Beth McLaughlin, MFA, is a writer and a service coordinator for Allegheny Lutheran Social Ministries. This column is coordinated by www.ltlwys.org, whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation.
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