At first, they called it “The Widow’s Club,” a group of five women – friends from the neighborhood – who’ve all lost their husbands over the last two years.
Karen McCann is the newest addition. Frank, her husband of 52 years, died last July at age 76.
“Do I have moments when the tears flow and I feel lonely? Absolutely. But I also have the most wonderful circle of friends,” McCann says. “It’s a comfort to know they understand what you’re feeling and going through.”
The group meets for breakfast every Saturday morning to chat, laugh and commiserate. They also celebrate birthdays and ushered in the New Year together with dinner and card games.
Omaha-based marriage and family therapist Brian Hofsommer says the importance of investing in relationships – friends and family – cannot be overstated for those dealing with the death of or divorce from a spouse.
“As you go through difficult transitions, these are the people you’re going to talk to and seek advice from.”
For McCann, the support of friends and family has been enough – and that’s perfectly fine. Scotti Thralls, a mental health therapist with Family Enrichment Inc., says there is no set standard for grieving: “It’s different for each person.”
In those cases where additional backup is needed, she recommends starting with a grief group.
“If it’s three months (the rule of thumb) and you find the group isn’t particularly helpful and you really aren’t functioning, then you probably need to seek out some grief counseling,” Thralls says.
She has special experience in that arena. A widow herself, she lost her husband, Kenneth Starks, eight years ago. “It made me a better therapist,” Thralls says.
Here’s some additional advice for those working to pick up the pieces after the loss of a spouse.
Brian Hofsommer, marriage and family therapist:
1. Find and take time to grieve. “Make sure you’re not distracting yourself. … Grieving is just accepting the new reality rather than fighting it.”
2. During divorce proceedings, focus on the long term. “Ten years from now, are you going to be proud of the way you acted during your divorce or will you have regrets? Are you saying nasty things about your ex? Withdrawing from friends and family? Drinking too much? Starting new relationships to fill the void of loneliness? All of these things can lead to lots of pain in the long term. It’s the long term that we care about.”
3. Envision what your life could be like in your 80s. Then, start making plans to realize that goal. “There are people who continually reinvent themselves.”
Scotti Thralls, clinical social worker and mental health practitioner:
1. Expect the first year to be the hardest. “You have to get through all of those major events that you might have done with your spouse – celebrating holidays, anniversaries and birthdays, maybe you traveled at a certain time.”
2. Don’t feel pressured to make big decisions before you’re ready. “I encourage people to take their time. There is no timetable for when you should dispose of your loved one’s belongings, and if there’s no good reason to sell the house, don’t. Wait until you feel or think that you’re ready.” Thralls adds, “In cases of divorce, sometimes you do have to make big decisions right away. That becomes a legal matter.”
3. Realize that everyone grieves differently. “People all feel and show their grief in different ways. Some people don’t feel the intense grief that other people do – and that’s fine. They needn’t feel guilty if their grief feels different to them.”
McCann does admit feeling guilty, sometimes, because she is not incapacitated by grief. (She says she has friends who are, years after their loss.) Her secret? She balances her grief by living in gratitude for her 52 years of marriage, the seven grown children that she and Frank raised and their 17 grandchildren: “I am celebrating and giving thanks every day that my life has been so blessed.”
Today, that group originally deemed “The Widow’s Club” is known simply as “The Ladies Club” because, McCann says, “we’re still here and we’re moving on with our lives.”
Karen McCann is the mother of the author of this story.