Widowed Persons Offer Recovery Support

Sacramento Region, CA  |  Story and photo by Jacqueline Fox
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Left to right: Deeann Lynch, Widowed Persons Association of California, Sacramento Chapter member, Claudia Ezzell, chapter president, Ginny Baldauf, Sunday Support coordinator.

Sacramento Region, CA  (MPG) - When Deeann Lynch lost her husband, Rick, of 30 years in 2012, she carried on as best as she knew how with life. But after roughly two years of widowhood, she says, something finally occurred to her that completely rocked her foundation.

“I woke up about two and a half years after my husband passed away, and it hit me that I was really alone,” said Lynch, 66, a retired school teacher with the San Juan Unified District.  “I hadn’t really given it a lot of thought before that day. I was just kind of operating on auto pilot.  But I realized all of our friends that we had as a couple were nowhere to be found. I took a look at my life and I didn’t really like what I was seeing.”

What Lynch experienced, the delayed impact of losing a spouse but not quite living through the grief and moving forward afterward, is common.  Just ask any one of the roughly 345 members of the Widowed Persons Association of California, Sacramento Chapter, where, week after week newcomers, just like Lynch, are greeted and welcomed in by long-standing members with experience to offer on how to feel, grieve, process and get on with reshaping their lives after the death of  spouse.

“Common understanding, the trust in others who have been through what you are going through, these are the things that we offer our members,” says Claudia Ezzell, the chapter’s sitting president, who lost her husband in 2006 and, in 2007 started attending the association’s Sunday Support class, which she said “changed everything.”

Trail a finger down the list of commonly identified top causes of stress, isolation and deep depression and you’ll find loss of a spouse right up there at the very top.  Widowed Persons provides a safe and convivial space for those experiencing the death of a spouse to recover from grief, release the stress, share their experiences with others, make new friends, stay connected and find redirection. Sometimes, as in Lynch’s case, this begins years after someone loses a spouse.  In other cases, it can be a matter of days.

While chapters have come and gone, the Widowed Person’s Association of California, Sacramento, was the first, founded in 1986 by Helen Krough, newly widowed and seeking a network of support.

“She was sitting around staring at the TV for days after she lost her husband,” said Ezzell.  “The funny thing is, the TV wasn’t even on and her son pointed it out to her that she was staring at a blank TV.  So she decided to put an ad online looking for others who just wanted to get together and share experiences.  She was hoping for 10 to 15 people, but 75 people showed up for its first meeting, which was held in the Carmichael Library.”

The Sacramento Chapter has since had as many as 500 members at a time and the list of programs and activities has grown from lunches and coffees to include travel trips, music festivals, dances, theater nights, monthly luncheons, dinners, Sock Hops at the Carmichael Elks Club, Luaus, walking groups, picnics, bridge, pinochle and Mexican train domino game days, bowling and more.

The chapter has a budget of roughly $60,000 and is run completely by a core of roughly 24 volunteers, all of whom have come through the program.  There is an annual membership fee of $120.00, which may be split into two payments. The fee for joining after July 1 is $40.00. Fees cover expenses for recruiting speakers, holiday parties, the printing of the monthly newsletter and other administrative costs.

Perhaps the most critical aspect of the chapter’s programming is its Sunday Support group, run by Ginny Baldauf, who joined the chapter when she lost her husband in 2003.  Sunday Support, says Baldauf, is the “core of everything the group has to offer.  It’s our weekly support group where all of us begin to get back on our feet. I started in Sunday Support. I came on the advice of a friend and I think I cried every Sunday for weeks, but eventually something turned over for me and I realized I had found a new support system and new friends.”

For Lynch, finding the group was also like being tossed a life preserver.

“I was going to a support group in other areas for a while, but I wasn’t getting anything I needed there,” Lynch said. “Then a friend brought me here and it was like for the first time I started to hear other people talking about the kinds of things I was feeling and thinking. I thought I was going crazy, but I realized I wasn’t. I was just needing to make new friends and feel that connection with people who understood me.”

In addition, the chapter offers four, six-week Grief and Recovery workshops each year, which are free to all and set to begin again July 13. Topics, according to workshop coordinator, Chuck Beaver, cover overcoming grief, coping with stress and anxiety, and changing relationships and moving on with your life.  The workshops culminate with a potluck event.

Men and women alike come seeking that initial support in dealing with the death of a spouse.  For most, the death has come suddenly and there is deep, profound and seemingly unshakable grief.  For others, such as caregivers of a spouse suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or other long-term illnesses who have had time to plan for change, the grief comes sneaking up from behind as they experience not just the loss of a loved one, but the loss of their identity as a caretaker.

“Many caregivers experience deep grief because their role as caretaker is now over and they find themselves without a sense of director or purpose, once that role has ended,” Baldauf said.

Because women tend to outlive men, membership is largely comprised of women,” said Ezzell. The average age of the group’s membership is 79 and that’s a concern.  With a goal to grow the membership base and increase funding, the group is amidst an effort to attract younger members. The challenge, said Ezzell, is that younger widows and widowers tend to still have careers and the ability to do more socializing to make new friends. Older members come in with fewer connections as they have typically been retired for some years and or their friends are primarily also passed away.

“It’s tough to get younger members in but we need them to grow,” Ezzell said. “Many younger people who lose a spouse still have a place to go every day. They work or they are in school, or raising small children, so they have roles and networks.”

Since joining the chapter, Lynch has begun volunteering in the office and supports Baldauf with Sunday Support. She also said she’s done a few things she’d stopped doing when her husband died, namely, traveling. But perhaps more importantly, she’s made new connections with people and from those connections have come new friendships, a key to recovery.

“I’ve started traveling again, which is something my husband and I did do together,” Lynch said. “But the big thing is that I’ve made new friends here. The people you meet in the Sunday Support group become your friends and you find you are doing things again and are part of this new community. They become like a new family.”