TJ Anglin, Widowed at age 27
Michele Neff Hernandez, Executive Director and Founder, Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation
Related Story: Young Widows And Widowers Learn To Cope
CAVANAUGH: Young married people just starting out are usually said to have their whole lives in front of them. But it doesn't work out that way for everyone. Illness, accidents, the terrible price of war all can cause an untimely death and create an untimely widowhood for the spouse left behind. Young widows face special challenges. A community of young people who have lost spouses has come together to form the soaring spirits loss foundation. And next weekend, their annual conference called Camp Widow will be held in San Diego. My guests, Michelle Neff Hernandez is Executive Director and Founder of the Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation. Welcome to the program.
HERNANDEZ: It is such a pleasure to be here. Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: And TJ Anglin is a member of the organization. Welcome.
ANGLIN: Thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: Michelle, tell us your story and why you started this group.
HERNANDEZ: When I was 35 years old, my 39-year-old husband left our house around 5:30 in the afternoon for his regular Wednesday bike ride. And about 35 minutes after he left, our home phone rang, and I considered whether or not to answer it. I was cooking dinner, and it was the first day of school. So we were busy in the house. But luckily I did pick it up. It was a woman who had just witnessed my husband being hit by a car from behind. And my first thought was if she's calling me and not calling 911, then clearly he's broken his legs and he's going to be really irritated because he can't go for a run tomorrow. And so she said I just think you should come right away. So I left my 14-year-old in charge of the house and went 3 miles from home to find that the situation was much graver than I first anticipated. And they eventually loaded me and him into the ambulance and he died in the parking lot of the emergency room.
CAVANAUGH: And at 35, you were not prepared for widowhood.
HERNANDEZ: At 35, I don't know that I'd even considered the word widow. And for it to apply to me was so completely foreign that I couldn't even -- I just kept thinking how do I even do that? Is there some way that you're supposed to be widowed? The only widowed people I knew were my grandmother and my great aunt. And I didn't have any concept that there were any other widowed people raising children and trying to put a life back together when everything you planned for the future was just wiped away in 35 minutes. You talk about all the questions, some of them sort of crazy questions that come up about do you wear your wedding ring!
HERNANDEZ: Right. And the one that drove me was do you wear black. I really wanted to know if widowed people were supposed to wear black. Being the type of person who wants to check things off lists, I wanted to make sure if I did everything correctly. I found out Emily Post says you should wear crape. And I'm crying in my office because I don't own any crape. But more than anything, what I wanted was a definition to widow hood that I could wrap my head around at the age of 35. And the common stereotype of a widowed person is a widowed woman, and generally someone who -- and literally people will answer that question, well, they sit in rocking chairs and they knit. And as a culture, we have really adopted that as what we think of when the word widow is uttered.
CAVANAUGH: Now, there are other groups for people who have lost spouses. Why did you think that young widows needed a special group?
HERNANDEZ: Was continue accidental journey for me. It started with me looking for answers to questions, whether you sleep on the same side of the bed, what you do with their things, and I wanted to ask other widowed people those questions. So I started by doing some interviews with some other widowed people, and what I realized was every time I sat down with a widowed person, I left with a friend. And that the younger widowed people that I met really understood what it was like to have to recreate their lives. Really, you have to start again. And so that made me really drive that kind of community. And while there are lots of organizations that do address widowhood, so many of them, their advice really was more toward the later years of widowhood. That I just really wanted something that was talking to me at 35. And trying to figure out what was next for myself. Meeting other widowed people changed everything for me. It made me feel like not the only other widowed 35-year-old person on the planet. I really felt so isolated and so alone in my -- just questioning constantly how am I supposed to do this, and how do people move through this?
CAVANAUGH: Let me move to TJ. You're not quite 30 yet; is that right?
ANGLIN: I'll be 29 Tuesday.
CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you a couple of tough questions if I can. How long ago did your wife die?
ANGLIN: 20 months ago.
CAVANAUGH: She died in childbirth?
CAVANAUGH: So you hope to cope with your grief while tending to a new baby.
ANGLIN: Yes. But I did have a lot of people that rallied around me and helped support it. So in a sense, I did, but then as well I had my mother step in, and different people from the church that were alongside me in the journey.
CAVANAUGH: It goes perhaps without saying you did not foresee anything like this happening.
ANGLIN: Not at all. We had just went to the hospital that night. She wasn't actually even in labor yet. And we're just laying by the bed. It was 11:30 PM, and she just sat up and called my name, and I ran to her, grabbed her, and she just died in my arms.
CAVANAUGH: What is it like to be out in the world after your wife dies? What kind of reactions have you gotten from people?
ANGLIN: I would say it's like being an alien. And one of the things I say is loneliness is not necessarily the absence of people, but it's in the presence of a lot of people that don't understand what you're going through. And everybody, they have an opinion on what you should do or how you should do it. But until they have been there or experienced it, it's another world. Camp Widow provides this community of people that when you walk into a room, can you look in their eyes, and you know that they know.
CAVANAUGH: Do you find that people have a hard time even knowing what to say to you?
ANGLIN: There are some people that are really compassionate and they don't say anything. I think the best advice given is the ungiven advice. Just the fact that somebody is there for you says it all. But I think people a lot of times they go wrong when they overstate things in theory.
CAVANAUGH: Michelle, what don't people understand about widowhood at a young age? I would imagine that many people think the loss is somehow easier than if you were elderly; is that right?
HERNANDEZ: Absolutely. And there's also the sense that that person can be replaced. And so so many times you'll hear people say, don't you worry, you're going to be able to find love again. And it makes you feel like your spouse or partner is a shoe, and you're just going to go get another pair of shoes. Because of people's youth, are and the fact it's very likely you may have 30, 50, 60 years ahead of them, it doesn't -- it doesn't make the loss smaller. You still experience that loss of the person you intended to spend the rest of your life with. And the additional loss of that future you planned with them. And so I think one of the huge misunderstandings is that your youth makes it easier for you to recover from and secondly that your life is just easily going to be recreated because there's still obviously so much ahead that clearly it's going to be fine. So young widowed people often feel set aside in their grief, and there's an expectation that we'll hurry up and be done quickly.
CAVANAUGH: TJ, when you say you feel like an alien, is part of that idea that you don't know what to do with this situation because it just should not have happened?
ANGLIN: That's definitely a great part of it. Upon you hear all these voices in your head, you're imagining yourself, and other people saying all these different things, opinions, like you should do this or you should do that. And you're just trying to find who you are because when your spouse died, a part of you died. So you're, like, who am I now?
CAVANAUGH: Michelle, you explained to us why you wanted to seek out other young people going through the loss of a spouse. But how did you go about creating this organization? How did you actually put it together?
HERNANDEZ: I first did the interviews I mentioned earlier. So I started with a group of 30 people. And I thought, wouldn't it be great if I could pull these 30 people together? They came from all over the country and scheduling-wise, I kept thinking that would be really challenging. Then just the lightbulb turned on, and I thought wouldn't it be great if any person who was widowed could come together in one place and have the purpose of that gathering to be, one, to be in a room of people who totally understand this loss. And this doesn't mean we don't all have unique processes of getting through our grief. But we would have started from the common ground of having lost a spouse or partner. And then if the second part could be about recreating your life. Because like TJ said, part of you died, and that part is not coming back. And it's hard for the people in our lives to understand. But you'll never not know what you know now. I know that a spouse or partner can die. And I knew that clearly before, logically, but I didn't emotionally know that. And now I do. And that will never change for me, personally. So if we could put together an event where people -- the purpose was to help them reeate their lives, help them find that new person within this loss. And it really is kind of about that burning down to ash and rising from those ashes because you truly feel like your whole life has just been shattered at your feet.
CAVANAUGH: I would imagine especially here in San Diego that many in your organization are military widows; is that right?
HERNANDEZ: We definitely have military widows that come on our events. But when you think about the number of people who are in accidents, the number of people who have illnesses, the number of people who have heart attacks, that number is so great. There are over 900,000 widowed people each year. That's a significant number of people. And absolutely we have a place for and do include our military widows proudly. But I would say they are far outnumbered by the just plain people who are living life and something tragic happens.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about Camp Widow.
HERNANDEZ: I always tell people, did you tell your friends they were going to Camp Widow, and they all said, oh, have fun with that! It's a combination between a social event and a conference. So what we do, we provide a space for widowed people to be able to celebrate where they're at right now, which you can imagine, widowed people don't even hear the word celebrate in conjunction with widowhood. You don't get the opportunity to celebrate that you did the hard thing, whatever that is. For some people, it's selling their house. For other people, it's having to figure out what to do about their career. For other people, it's children's milestones. For some people, it's getting out of bed and making it through the day. Depending on where you are in your loss, any one of those things could be celebrated. So we celebrate how far we've come, however many steps that is. And we also provide content that is it all directed at a combination of talking about how we can keep our financial house in order. How we can assist our children if we have children who are grieving. How we are able to refind things that matter to us. How you ask the hard questions. How you sat boundaries. Because when someone dies, you allow pretty much everyone in. You're crushed. Then suddenly your circle is really, really large, and everybody's got an opinion about how and when and why. And you have to start to recreate those boundaries for yourself, acknowledging that these people have been so helpful to you. And yet you do have to sort of stand on your own 2 feet again. So it's this interesting combination between social activities and workshop-driven -- content-driven workshops. And this year we'll be celebrating our 5-year anniversary. So we have the Soaring Spirits Anniversary Ball. So we'll be having a formal event here at the Marriott. And people will say, seriously? Why are you planning a formal event for widowed people. And I always tell them it's no date required. So often you feel like the 9th wheel associating with people who love you, yet still they're all partnered, and you're still trying to find yourself. So to go to a party where we don't play any slow songs, to go and just celebrate the fact that you're alive and that you experienced a love that it was significant enough that it changed your life when you lost it, that's what we celebrate.
CAVANAUGH: What has this organization done for you?
ANGLIN: I think in coming to widowhood, there's a sense that there's frailty and weakness. But also what I've seen is incredible heroes. When somebody goes to war and they experience things that a human shouldn't experience or they see things that a human shouldn't experience, they come back, and we celebrate them as heroes. For me, I was 17 years with my late wife, 7 years of marriage, and she died in my arms saying my name. And to me, that's a love story. So when I see all of these people who honored marriage, who said till death do us part, I'm looking at these people that have incredible character that fulfilled what they were committed to do. So just to see other heroes and celebrate one another and see where they're at, and say, hey, I could get there too. Or to look at people who may be a little behind me and say, hey, you can do it too.
CAVANAUGH: Michelle, if someone listening is interested in getting more information about this Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation, where will they found that?
HERNANDEZ: Everything about all of our programs and on our websites, and that's soaringspirits.org. We also have campwidow.org. Our upcoming event this Saturday -- actually Friday, Saturday, Sunday, it is absolutely not too late to attend. We have people at the hotels stop by and say I saw your sign in the lobby. And I was widowed eight years ago, would it be okay if I came in? The answer is always yes, yes, yes. A true and happy life truly is possible for them in the aftermath of a great loss.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for coming in and speaking with us.
HERNANDEZ: Thank you very much.
ANGLIN: Thank you very much.