How To Soften Widowhood

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When I arrived at my first Widowed Persons Service (WPS) potluck last February, I was handed a name tag with a big pink “NEW” stuck to the bottom. Uh-oh. Spotlight time.

But no, or at least not unpleasantly so. Over the next two hours, one or two at a time, every one of the few dozen people present quietly came up and greeted me, asked a tactful question or two, shared their stories or just said they were pleased to see me.

“The best help a widowed person can receive is help that comes from another widowed person,” said Audrey Markham Sullivan, who founded the WPS of Northern Virginia 25 years ago. “If you help someone else, you help yourself. We try to have listening ears and understanding hearts.”

In 1982, no one recognized the need for such a service, but now WPS is so widely recognized that it adds more than 100 names a month to its 3,000-name mailing list. WPS charges nothing; contributions, which are tax deductible, are used mainly to put out a newsletter. At potlucks, women bring a dish and men bring wine and a small contribution toward paper products. Restaurant dinners are strictly “separate checks.”

The names of newly widowed people come from a variety of sources. The first contact, usually several months after the death of the spouse, is a letter about WPS. Then the person gets a letter from the team captain for his or her area promising a phone call. (Audrey calls the seven team captains “the glue that holds us together.”) Finally, an outreach volunteer trained by WPS calls to draw the person out and encourage them to attend a potluck or restaurant outing. No pressure, no obligations.

Sometimes the person approaches WPS instead. That was the case with Jim Palumbo of Lake Ridge in Prince William County, an area not covered by WPS.

About eight months after his wife died shortly after Christmas in 2005, Jim began feeling it was time to get on with things.

“A friend told me about WPS but no longer had any contact information,” he said. “I went online and came up with four possible phone numbers. The fourth one I tried was WPS. Within days I had gotten several phone calls and invitations. My first WPS was a potluck dinner in Vienna.”

The following March, he took the outreach training, which is held once a year.

“It helped me greatly to be among people who could relate to what I was going through, to share their ‘lessons learned’ and to provide sympathy and caring,” Jim said. “It is so important to share fears, grief and anger.”

Hazen Stevens of Woodbridge, Va., whose wife died last March, said he realized he was “looking for something.” A hospice worker gave him a number to call. It was Audrey’s. “We talked for a long time,” he said. “She told me everything I needed to hear. She had several team leaders call me and invite me to potlucks and restaurant meals. Every person I have met has been wonderful. Audrey even gave me her cell phone number!”

Walter Best of Springfield, whose wife also died last March, told a similar story. “WPS is one of the nicest organizations I could ever imagine if you’re looking for companionship or socializing,” he said. “I went to my church to see if they had a group like this. They didn’t, but an office worker there gave me the WPS Warm Line number.” That number is 703-281-9595.

People who are used to being part of a couple often feel that they make other people uncomfortable in social situations, but WPS aims to be more than a social group. To that end, members are encouraged to share their knowledge. Many WPS members take part in George Mason University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI).

For example, Lee Cutler of Alexandria teaches “Buffettology” – the methods of investing wizard Warren Buffett – at OLLI and “Smart Shopping in Today’s Financial Marketplace” at the Holland Hills senior center in the Mount Vernon area.

“We cover subjects like long-term care insurance, how to evaluate continuing care communities, how to look at contracts analytically. I don’t give advice or sell any services.

“I give WPS the credit for my outgrowth,” she said. Lee began doing financial research when her husband, who died in 2000, lost his health insurance. “I knew I could combine my knowledge of products and my experience as a caregiver,” she said. “We’re being targeted with all kinds of products.

“WPS provides a needed service to the newly widowed. They help you develop a support base and socialize and get back into the world,” she said. “Audrey helped me get my life back on track and get out and do what comes naturally to me. We all want to help other people and protect them.”

Shirley Smith of Ashburn, who was widowed in 1996, has done many workshops for OLLI and WPS. Now she runs a monthly forum at a public library to discuss whatever financial issues are on participants’ minds “now that they don’t have a spouse to bounce things off of.” A major goal is to enable people to talk comfortably with their financial advisers.

“We share ideas about a good CD rate or a good stock or whatever,” said Shirley, a former schoolteacher. “The best thing about WPS is the opportunity to share ideas. I recently finished a course at OLLI’s new campus in Loudoun County that drew quite a few people from the [Leisure World at] Landsdowne and Falcons Landing retirement communities.

“Investing is a whole new language for some people, but it is basically just reading and research. I am self-taught, and I never recommend any specific purchases.

“The first year of being widowed is a maze of paperwork and tears. The second year you say, ‘This is not a bad dream. This is my life.’ The third or fourth year, you need to do something to reinvent your life and focus. You don’t want widowhood to be your priority for the rest of your life.”

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