A few weekends ago I attended my first Camp Widow. (If you read "Camp Widow" and think, "Wow, that's gotta be depressing," think again. Read on.)
As described on its website, "Camp Widow™ is a weekend long gathering of widowed people from across the country, and around the world. We come together to create a community that understands the life altering experience of widowhood. Camp Widow™ provides practical tools, valuable resources, and peer-based encouragement for rebuilding your life in the aftermath of the death of a spouse…all in a fun, uplifting, laughter filled atmosphere." CW is put on by the amazing Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation. (When I first became aware of the SSLF, I remember thinking, "Soaring spirits...what??" I couldn't fathom how anything related to loss could be called "Soaring Spirits." I didn't get it for a long time. But now I do. I think you'll see why, too.)
Anyway, it's been almost seven years since Ron passed away, but I must somehow have known that something like CW would still be helpful to me. (But that's the thing about grief; it really does stay with you. So it's not like the passing of almost 7 years should mean I'd need it any less.) I'm trying to remember how I thought about exactly why I'd wanted to attend--before it happened, I mean...and I can't, really. I think it so surpassed whatever vision I'd had of it, that I can't even see that vision anymore. (How amazing is that?) Someone at the conference asked me how I'd first heard about it, and I couldn't remember that either, but it must have been through the internet somehow. Thank God for modern technology!
At the last event of the conference, we were given evaluation forms to fill out, and one of the questions was: What was your favorite part? I wrote: "Connecting with other widows, inspiration, future personal growth prompted by session content--it's hard to choose just 1!" And as the time since has passed, those three aspects have continued to stand out as Camp Widow's meaning to me: connection, inspiration, and personal growth.
The connection began almost immediately after I registered at the conference, when I finally met in person the first of many widows I'd meet that I'd only interacted with online until then. I also made many new friends while I was there, including one who lives in Ohio. We've already talked about meeting halfway between us for dinner sometime soon.
Being with 274 others "get it" is an amazing experience. I knew about each of them what they all knew about me: We'd all been through our own hell (with some of us still in the worst of it). Even if we didn't really connect...often, knowing glances were exchanged. And when we did connect, we knew we could ask about the other's loved one--and talk about our own--and it wouldn't be weird. It wouldn't create the same social discomfort we tend to experience around others. We didn't have to explain, we didn't have to change the subject, we didn't have to fear that others "probably don't wanna hear this." If the tears came, that was OK too...we heard several times, "It's OK to not be OK." And hugs...hugs were given freely and fervently to friends old and new alike. Awesome.
The inspiration for me began on the first day, too. One of the first sessions I attended was "Meet the Founders," led by Michele Neff Hernandez, Founding President and Executive Director of the SSLF; Carole Brody Fleet, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Widows Wear Stilettos; and Matt Logelin, Founder and President of the Liz Logelin Foundation. Each of these people used their widowhood as impetus to start organizations that help widow(er)s around the world in various ways. And they stayed at it, even when everything seemed like "This is never going to work." I am pretty much in awe of all three. They serve as shining examples of what can happen when one determines to bring good out of the pain.
The inspiration continued the next morning, when Michele gave the keynote address. What an amazing woman! She told the story of how her husband Phil died (he was killed when a car hit him while he was out on a bike ride...which incidentally is how a former pastor of mine, Todd Scoles, died). And she told the story of how she started Camp Widow...and committed to a second year, even when it seemed that the first would end in financial disaster for her. I remember her saying about the first-year attendees, "I couldn't say No to those people."
But proving the most valuable to me from Michele's address are a couple of analogies she used. One of them she said in a few sentences at most and never really referred to again. But it was so powerful that it has stayed with me. She said a widow is like the one glowing ember that's left when the entire house has burned to the ground. What I love about that is: It's an ember--it's ashes; but it's also glowing--there's still some light in there somewhere. At first and for a long time (unique to the individual), all a widow sees herself as is ashes...and all she sees around her are ashes. But with healing, that glow begins to emerge...she can see it in herself again, she can see her world as 'lit' again, and she can use it to create a new healing kind of fire....
Speaking of "using it," that leads me to the other analogy Michele used: that of a voice. As in, at every stage of life we have (or are looking for) our voice: what is special about me; what do I offer the world? Well, the death of the one we love more than life itself...takes away that voice. We are silent in the face of such profound loss. But just like with the ember, eventually...our voice will return. (Again, when and how that happens is unique to the individual.) Michele's challenge to us was: when it does...use it. Use your voice. Whatever that means for you...use your voice.
I couldn't agree more. I don't have it all worked out as to why this happened or what it all means (who does?!?). But one thing I know for sure: I will use what I have been through to help others. 'Cause if I don't? Then it's like...all that pain for nothing. And to that all I can say is: Not on your life.
As for personal growth, that will come out of many of the sessions I attended...and there's so much material there, I'll have to save it for future posts.
I think it's safe to say: For me, Camp Widow 2011 was a resounding success. To the donors who made my campership possible this year: You have my undying gratitude; thank you SO much!