"Eight years ago today, Soaring Spirits was founded.
The idea for this organization was written on a napkin.
Personal experience inspired each of our founding board members to agree to serve.
We felt sure that hope mattered, that access to hope could change the lives of widowed men and women.
Together we set about creating a space built for widowed people, by widowed people.
And then, person by person, email by email, event by event, conversation by conversation...we discovered the true power of hope and community.
We love widowed people. We believe in widowed people. We work for widowed people. We learn from widowed people.
Thank you for sharing your lives, your loves, your successes, your failures, your thoughts, your feelings, your dreams with us.
Walking this road with you for the past eight years has been an honor, and YOU fuel our passion for serving the widowed people of tomorrow."
- Michele Neff Hernandez, Founder and Executive Director of Soaring Spirits International
So, there you have it. Eight years ago, this beautiful non-profit organization, that hosts this very blog I am writing for, was founded. Before that, it did not exist. Before that, It was not a thing. Before that, the frightening and never-ending darkness that so many of us felt after becoming widowed, it just remained there. It lingered, because we did not have this place to walk into - whether it be online or in-person - and be met exactly where we are - without judgment, without expectation, without reservation. Before eight years ago, life as a widowed person was a lot more lonely and a lot less hopeful.
I know firsthand. My world turned into that frightening and never-ending darkness on July 13th, 2011, when my husband, Don Shepherd, left for work and never came home. His massive heart-attack had no warning, no symptoms, and left me behind just 4 years into our marriage, taking our future and our dreams, and sweeping them into a pile of nothing.
That is what life felt like to me. Nothing. It felt like nothing. What was the point of anything? Why should I bother, if I don't get to have the love that I had waited so long to find? Why was it taken from me? Why was life taken from this man, who was the most selfless and beautiful soul I have ever known? Just a parade of horrifying questions, all with no answers. Perhaps the worst part of finding yourself widowed at 39 (or at whatever age and time it happened to you), smack in the middle of your life and the beginning of your marriage, is that you feel so very alone. Nobody understands this very specific pain - the pain of losing your everything, your very breath, the other half of your universe.
At first, they try. But they say and do all the wrong things, and you feel judged and suffocated and put off. They become exhausted with your never-ending pain, and they fade away. At a certain point, all the people who tried to help, they start to walk back into their own lives. Because they are not widowed - you are. And so there you sit, completely and totally alone. In the middle of the night - alone. When you're sick - alone. When you are facing job loss or more bills or daily stresses of life - alone. When your back itches and you can't reach the spot to scratch it - alone.
When I became a widow, I was terrified. I couldn't see a day where the pain wouldn't overtake me. I couldn't see any light, because my very existence had become so dark. I started writing a blog about all my feelings, because I had always been a writer and it tends to give me a sense of release somehow - and while that helped, everyone in my life was worried about me. Everything I wrote was very dark. It had a hopelessness about it. I was being brutally honest about how awful and horrific this all was, and that scared a lot of people. I would post on Facebook about not wanting to be here anymore, about feeling like everything was pointless. I wasn't trying to fighten anyone, and I would always have to make sure to add in the post: "I'm not going to hurt myself. This is just how I FEEL." And that's the thing - I was in a place that my soul needed to be in. I was nowhere near ready to move forward or shift to the next place in my emotions. I was in a place of deep grief, and I did not need to be fixed. I needed to be heard.
When you exist in this place of darkness for too long, you start to believe that you will never get out - that this is just what you have to live with, what you need to accept as being true. And then someone or some thing comes along, and shines their "hope light" in your face, and shows you a different way. For me, that hope light came in the form of an Angel disguised as a human named Michele. She sent me an email one day, out of the clear blue sky, telling me that she came across my blog and loved it, and also my You Tube channel, where one of my comedy videos caught her attention. It was me performing at Gotham Comedy Club in NYC, 2 months after my husband's death, in a Comedy Benefit Show that my friends in the stand-up community had put together to honor him and help me. I was up onstage, telling jokes about death and grief. Finding the funny inside the pain.
This beautiful angel called me, and she asked me if I would like to be a featured writer for the Soaring Spirits blog, "Widow's Voice." And by the way, would I like to come to Myrtle Beach and give a 75-minute comedic presentation about death? I believe I said: "Wait - there's a place where I can do that? Seriously?" And she said: "Yup. It's called Camp Widow." To which I replied: "I would love to do that! What the hell is Camp Widow???" And with that one conversation, a beautiful friendship was born, and my life began to very slowly and very hesitantly, peek it's way out of the frightening darkness.
To say that Soaring Spirits International, and all of their many programs for widowed people, literally saved my life, is still not a strong enough statement to express the alarming difference it has made for my day to day existence. Now, almost 5 years into my life-altering loss, it still makes me emotional to think about those darkest of days, when I could not imagine or see light. When I got that email and then phone call from Michele, I was about 18 months into my loss, and I was probably at my lowest place emotionally. This organization gave me a place to simply be myself, with no apologies. They gave me a safe environment to express every single screwed up thing I was feeling, without the fear I was wrong or weird or sick for feeling it. They validated that I was, not in fact crazy, but a person whose entire galaxy had been torn apart by death, and everything that I felt about that happening to me was normal. In a nutshell, they did what almost nobody else was doing - they met me exactly where I was, and they didn't try to make me be somewhere different.
And guess what? When you are in a place of safety and non-judgment, you are suddenly able to just be you. If someone gives you the space and the freedom and the confirmation that it's perfectly okay to laugh, then not only will you laugh, but you will also cry just as freely. And when someone gives you the freedom to cry freely without running away from you or looking at you awkwardly, you will not only cry freely, but you will laugh too. You will dance, you will get angry, you will isolate and then come back, you will feel joy followed by guilt, you will do all of these things and more - often times in the same hour. And the people that are surrounding you - they accept every single bit of it. Because you are them, and they are you. And everyone just gets it.
Being around other widowed people, for a widowed person, is a tapestry filled with magic. There is a knowing when you are with one another, an instant connection or bond, a feeling that can't be described. Everyone takes a different individual path through grief, but the knowing that we are all on the ride together, and that someone else out there feels what you feel and understands you, can be the difference between darkness and light. To sit with someone else who has also lost the person they love most to death, and to share stories and memories and pictures of that person, and to not feel their eyes shifting away from you because they are uncomfortable with your pain - it is a thing of beauty. To grab a beer with a handful of widowed people that you met at Camp Widow, after an emotional workshop or presentation - to unwind together and have a chat and be validated and not have to be exhausted from just pretending all the time - it is incredible.
I will never, ever forget what it feels like to be in that place of frightening darkness. I still go back there sometimes. I think that grief is just like that - it doesn't ever end. But to know that when I go there now, that there is this endless stream of support - whether it's through all the hundreds of people I've met over the years at Camp Widow, or the many widowed people online just chatting on the Soaring Spirits Facebook page and leaving comments on posts, or the people in their message boards and chat room at their popular site Widowed Village, or the ones that have attended my local NYC Regional Social meetup (which exist in many different cities and towns throughout the country now, all run by other widowed people), or the ones who are reading this very blog post right now - it is priceless. I have often said that widowed people are the family you gain, when the family you knew is gone. And that is the truth. I no longer think of Soaring Spirits and the people in it as an "organization" - they are my family. And through each other, we keep our loved ones names and souls alive. Through each other, we live because they cannot. Through each other, we reach down and grab the hand of the one who is sitting in that pit of darkness, and we lift them up so they can see that light. Through each other, we discover that we were not put on this earth to suffer pointlessly, and that life is about love and connection and growth. It is about the connections we make, and the legacy we choose to leave behind. Through each other, we make damn sure that our partners who died, have a beautiful legacy. We make sure that their lives matter, everyday - and that our lives matter, even when we don't feel like living them just yet.
Last night, I was talking with a dear widower friend of mine - one who has been sitting in that frightening darkness for much longer than most of us should ever have to. When his wife died, he was treated horribly by the very system of law enforcement, counselors, hospice, and other service professionals, who should know better, and who are suppoed to be there to offer support. He was judged and made to feel like he was "sick" for having his emotions. He was turned away from many places of "support", because he didn't fit into a certain demographic of who they were willing to help. Because of all that, he is now in that place where I was for the first 18 months. That place where you simply don't believe that it will ever get better. Where you think that maybe that happens for other people, but not for you. He told me: "it doesn't work that way for me." And I told him: "Actually, you're wrong. That is exactly the way it works. You were treated horribly when this happened to you, and that is NOT okay. It is awful. But that doesn't mean it needs to be that way forever. Other widowed people will save you. They will give you what nobody else can, and what nobody else has. When I was in that darkness, someone shined their hope light on me, finally. And now I'm shining mine on you. Widowed people have each other's backs. We are family. That is how it works. That is exactly how you survive this."
He doesn't think that something like this is made for someone like him. But it is. It is made exactly for him, and for all the other widowed people out there who have lost hope, and who just live their lives to exist. It is for all the ones who don't even know that there is a thing - a place - a world - where every single person who has lost the person they love most to death - is welcomed. It is for those who think they have failed at life after their loss. It is for those who can't seem to find their way again, or maybe don't want to. It is for those who have no interest in finding love again, and those who are re-partnered or re-married. It is for those who are 20 years out from their loss, and those who are 3 months out. Whatever your situation, wherever you fall in this life that you didn't ask for, it is for you. Where other organizations of help fail to recognize and validate all people living with the death of the person they love most, this one truly is for everyone.
That is actually the most beautiful part about what Soaring Spirits does. Sure, there are other organizations and places that offer support and hope and community to widowed people. And that is wonderful. But many people, like my friend and many others, fall through the cracks and don't get the help they need, because the system has failed them. They are told they are "too old" for this support group, or "too young", or it's "too soon", or it's "too late," or "this group is only for widows, not widowers", or "this is a religious group only", or "if you were not married to your partner, you are not considered a widow", or "we don't serve the gay community", or "this is only for people who had children", or .... well .... you get the idea.
Before my husband died and before I knew about a place called "Camp Widow" or a thing called "Soaring Spirits International" or a beautiful soul named Michele - my goals in life included maybe being on TV and making people laugh and hopefully making a living at that, and maybe being "famous." Now? My biggest goal comes directly from that place of frightening darkness - from my forever knowing of that place, and the fear and terror of being there. My goal is to reach inside with that knowing, and grab the hand of every widowed person who sits there, and somehow shine that hope light on them. My goal is to tell that person the absolute truth - that they will NEVER "move on" or "get over" the loss of their person. They will love them forever and beyond, and they will always feel pain and grief over that love, and over the loss of that love. But they do NOT have to do it alone, and that in our togetherness, we can discover and feel life again. We can let joy and pain co-exist like siblings. Like air. And in the same way that life was a hell of a lot better and easier when you were sharing it with someone else, this life that none of us asked for is a hell of a lot easier, when you are surrounded by people who say, to your pain: "I know. Me too."
Widowed people are the family you gain, when the family you knew is gone. Thank you to everyone at Soaring Spirits International and to my beautiful friend Michele - for giving me a life again, for shining your hope light on me until it burned, and for giving me a family. It is my life's passion to pay that forward forever, and to not leave anyone behind in that frightening darkness.
And to those of you who are currently sitting in that darkest of dark places, and who think that healing just isn't for you, that things can never be any different or less painful - I ask you, genuinely, to think again. That's all. You don't even have to move physically. Stay right there in that place of darkness. But now that you know there is a thing and a place that exists for you, let us know that you exist, and that you need a hand. I promise you, those of us who have been right where you are, will reach out to grab your hand, and sit with you in your pain, until you are ready to shift a bit. You still don't have to move. Not until you are ready. Sometimes all you need is a little shift into a different corner - a place just a bit to the left or right that offers a different view - and someone to sit there beside you - just existing alone, together, in the knowing.
Stay right there. Look for that "hope light". It might blind you at first, but that's only because you're not used to it.
Stay right there, friend.
We will meet you exactly where you are.