Two women are standing alongside the ocean in front of the Marriott Resort in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. They are lingering behind about a hundred or so other widowed people who have started to go back inside – women, men, married, unmarried, engaged, same-sex partners, old, young, international. People of all kinds, from all over, with one very harsh thing in common: the person they intended to spend the rest of their life with is gone. They died.
It is a little after midnight on Saturday, April 20th, and we have just finished a ceremonial “ocean letter release”, where we wrote love notes to our partners, attached them to ribbon and hearts (all biodegredable), and tossed them out to sea. Most have left the beach area by now, but some of us can’t just yet, because the moment is too big and too powerful, and we still aren’t done talking to our husbands. We never will be.
One of these two women happens to be me, and this other woman, maybe about 5 or 10 years older than myself, comes walking up to me with tears in her eyes, and a few glasses of wine in her stomach. It is pitch black outside, and only the stars and the waves washing up on shore act as our light to see one another. “I don’t know who the hell you are, and I don’t really care”, she says to me matter-of-factly. Then she gives me a hug and starts to cry. We stand there together, arm in arm, looking out at the water. There are no other words. No explanations of any kind. There is no need for any of that. Because I already understand. In fact, everyone here understands. Welcome to Camp Widow.
Just 21 months ago, in the life where my husband was alive and well and we were happily, joyfully married; I knew nothing of such a place, nor did I care to hear of such a place, quite frankly. But when you wake up in a new world one morning where a freight train dressed up as a massive heart-attack decides to kill your husband for no damn reason, what becomes important to you quickly changes. Writing and comedy have always been coping mechanisms and saviors for me, so I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, and then I wrote some more. I created this blog and started furiously typing out all of the ugly, painful, horrific, and often hilarious truths about what it’s like to lose your husband and the life you knew.
And then, a few months ago, an angel on earth disguised as a woman named Michele Neff Hernandez, found my blog and contacted me. She told me she runs an organization that connects widowed people worldwide, called Soaring Spirits. (www.sslf.org) Through that organization, she also founded and runs this amazing annual event called Camp Widow. She wondered if I would like to be one of the 7 featured writers for their website’s blog called Widow’s Voice, and she invited me to deliver a 75-minute comedy Workshop / Performance on grief and loss, at Camp Widow. Never in a million years did I imagine that saying yes to both of these wild ideas would have such an impact on my life. But then again, who ever imagined I would be widowed at age 39?
In a lot of ways, it is almost impossible to describe something like Camp Widow in writing. I could go into all the specifics about workshops and other people’s personal stories of loss and all of that, but I wouldnt ever be able to capture the feeling or the tone or the magic of what went on there, inside this blogpiece. It is one of those things in life that is simply an “experience”, and you really need to be there to understand the impact and the power of its existance. However, if you are a widowed person and you are reading this right now, try to picture the following:
Try to picture a place where complete strangers give you a hug or a smile or a comforting look, because they know where you’ve been, and they’ve walked where you’ve walked. A place that holds a formal and elegant Banquet Dinner Reception for it’s “campers”, and where the D.J. is specifically ordered not to play any slow songs the entire night – ever. A place where you can dance freely and openly and have fun, without worrying about how you look to others, or whether people will think that you must be “over it” or “getting better”, simply because you are out and you have dared to laugh or feel joy again. A place where every single person around you understands how you can go from exhausted to angry to elation – all in the course of one hour. A place where you meet men and women whom you have been talking with for weeks or months or years online, and when you see them in person, you feel that instant connection, that bond that brings you closer. A place where they hand out kleenex before Workshops and Seminars, and where people don’t look the other way or act all awkward when you bust out crying or when you mention your loved ones name. A place where you are no longer the misfit, because everyone is the misfit. Everyone is Rudolph, and you all get to hang out on The Island of Misfit Toys. Throw in 2 full days of wonderful speakers, presenters, Workshops, and Round-Table discussions (like a support-group, but with specified topics such as Sudden Death, Widowed Without Kids, Long-Term Illness, Finances and many other subjects), all held at a gorgeous beachfront Marriott hotel with cockail parties and social events put together just for us; and you’ve got yourself a truly unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
None of this would even exist without that Angel I mentioned before – the one named Michele who is walking around earth in a human costume. When her husband Phil went out for his evening bike ride on August 31, 2005, and was hit by a Suburban, her entire world flipped upside down in seconds. Left with their 3 children and a planned future stolen away by death, Michele used her pain and her struggle and her grief to help other people all over the world who were going through something just as lonely and isolating and frightening. She took something that is terrifying on every level, and with it, she created this place of hope and dreams and inspiration. She didn’t have to do that. She didn’t have to do a damn thing, if you really think about it. To me, the very idea that she didnt drown or hide inside of her grief, but chose to reach out with it in the most expanding way possible, while still raising a family alone, makes this woman one of the most heroic people I have ever met.
At Camp Widow, Michele delivers a Key Note Address to all the campers who traveled from all over the country, and the world, to be at this exciting event. In her speech this past weekend, she quoted from the beautiful poem A Summer Day by Mary Oliver, in asking us all this incredible question:
“Tell me – what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
It is a loaded question, especially when you are grieving the loss of your life-partner, and just trying to regain your footing. And when a non-widowed person tries to deliver me words of inspiration such as this, or tells me how strong I am, or some other cliche or cheesy thing – it just sounds like pointless words. Like the teacher’s voice from all the Charlie Brown specials, where you just heard that noise coming from the phone or loud-speaker: Waah waah wah wah waaa….
It is not that I dont appreciate friends and family trying to encourage me or believing in me. I do. I really do. However, when someone who hasn’t been through this stands there and tells you that things will get better or that you will be okay or that you will have joy again, it is very tough to believe them. Because truthfully – they just dont know. They havent walked through the fire, so how can they say how much it burns and when it will stop? They havent felt the torture of nails being pounded into their flesh over and over again, so how can they end the bleeding? They haven’t sat all curled up in their beds, with recurring visions of that horrible, traumatic day – flashing before them on an endless loop, asking themselves why they should bother to get up today and continue on with existing, so how can they possibly know about what it means to lose hope, and how scary and awful that feels?
But this woman. This Angel. This woman with the warm and inviting voice – this woman who said a casual goodbye to her husband and then never saw him again – this woman who somehow found the way to rebuild her life – this woman who created and invented a place for people like me to go, where we can feel wanted and loved and not ashamed or shunned by society or forgotten about, even if only for a weekend – this woman who embodies everything good and everything real – when this woman stands up on a stage and tells a crowd of widowed people that hope matters, or that we can still have an amazing life, even if its not the one we wanted or planned – I believe her. I believe her because she did it herself. I believe her because she is standing there in front of me, and she is made up of all her pain and strength and fear and love and grief, and she continues on. I believe her because her life will always be complicated and wonderful and joyful and tinged with sadness and loss, and because she married again, to a man who not only doesnt feel threatened that she will always love her late husband, but who fully supports her calling to help other widowed people throughout the world. I believe her – simply because she is alive.
For those that have been asking what Camp Widow did for me, or if Im “all better” now that I went there – as Ive said many times, there is simply no such thing as being “better”. There just isnt. However, there is such a thing as recreating your life, while always carrying your partner with you, deep inside of your soul. There is such a thing as finding hope where you thought there was none, and light where you saw only darkness, and tomorrow where you couldn’t see past today. There are new relationships and friendships to explore, and people to love, and things to learn, and beauty to see. And there is the fact that even though today I feel hopeful and inspired – tomorrow I will feel different. And then different once again. That’s just grief. And that’s okay.
And then, of course, there is that lingering and very important question that still needs to be thought about, pondered over, and answered:
What is it I plan to do with my one wild and precious life?
I have no idea. But then again, maybe I do. In a lot of ways, I think I am already doing it.
Soaring Spirits is a non-profit organization helping the widowed worldwide, and celebrating its 5 year anniversary of Camp Widow West (coming up in San Diego, June 28), and 2 year anniversary of Camp Widow East (last weekend in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.) If you know anyone who is widowed, please tell them about this magical place where they can begin to live their life again, one tiny moment at a time. Please donate to www.sslf.org , and also check out www.micheleneffhernandez.com. Thank you so much.