Newly Widowed Find Strength In Numbers

When Kathryn Douglas organized a support group for those who have lost a spouse or parent, she went against conventional wisdom that discouraged her from keeping in touch with participants. In Douglas’ group, the bereaved keep in touch, getting together for walks and fundraisers.

When Kathryn Douglas organized a support group for those who have lost a spouse or parent, she went against conventional wisdom that discouraged her from keeping in touch with participants. In Douglas’ group, the bereaved keep in touch, getting together for walks and fundraisers.

By Sophia Ricco
sricco@longislandergroup.com

Losing one’s significant other can be one of the most difficult experiences to cope with. Many feel as if their partner left them to handle life on their own. They do not know how to pick up the pieces.

Kathryn Monaco Douglas, who herself was widowed at a young age, helps widows and widowers navigate this complicated time.

When Douglas was 42 years old, her husband unexpectedly passed away, leaving her feeling lost. As she tried to find solace with his death, she attended a bereavement group at the Suffolk Y in Commack but after a few weeks the group ended and she felt like she was back at square one. After finding the strength within herself to get through this difficult time, Douglas knew she needed to help others handle their loss. She called her church.

“A nun answered the phone and she said, ‘I was just praying for help with bereavement. I can’t believe you’re calling me.’ “ Douglas said. “I was there in five minutes, we embraced and I told her my story. She sent me for classes and within six months I started doing the group.”

That was 13 years ago and her mission to help widows and widowers has grown. Now, Douglas along with six volunteers hold support groups for widows and widowers in various age groups, and for teens who have lost a parent. The typical group size is 20-25 members but Douglas has never turned anyone away. When interest warrants it, she has created additional groups.

“I will not let anyone be alone grieving,” Douglas said. “Can you imagine losing your spouse and you’re grieving and they tell you they won’t take you because you didn’t make the list yet?”

During the program, Douglas and her volunteers meet weekly for eight weeks. Each meeting covers a different topic — everything from asking for help to alleviating stress in a positive way — and gives members tools to cope with their loss.

Douglas also provides resources, such as phone numbers of trusted handymen, painters, and lawyers.

She also stays connected with group participants.

“When they [widows] come to me, some of them have done a bereavement group and … after eight weeks feel like they were just dropped,” Douglas said. “They’re not ready to go or to be dropped, they still need support. And that’s what a support group is, to continue supporting someone.”

Douglas stays in touch through a private Facebook group that has over 650 members. As a way to brighten others’ dark times, she updates the page with positive posts and stories from her experience of first being widowed.

“I never knew there were that many widows on Long Island,” Douglas said. “I never knew it would be this big. I just knew that it was needed and had to be different from the groups that were out there. They were following rules that just didn’t apply to widows.”

When Douglas was still in bereavement, she attended a group in Bay Shore, but  when the group started with every person sharing their story of losing their spouse, she found herself overcome with emotion. She was in tears and left before they even got to her.

“At the beginning it was hard to listen to people’s losses and so I made it where people don’t share all the details of their loss. I started changing the rules,” Douglas said. “They told me I can’t stay connected to anyone. When you end the group - that’s it. But I didn’t end it, I wanted to stay connected.”

Douglas started organizing walks as a way to stay engaged with her members. She learned many widows experienced financial hardships due to their unexpected life events. So she turned the walk into a fundraiser to benefit those struggling financially.

“When they say, ‘I lost my house,’ I tell them I lost my house too. When they say, ‘I’ve lost everything.’ I say, I’ve lost everything too and have had to start over again. They know I’m empathizing with them, I’m not just sympathizing with them,” Douglas said.

Even after years have gone by, many still grieve their loss and struggle on days like the person’s birthday, wedding anniversary, and anniversary of their death.

“People don’t understand and don’t know how to talk to them. They say dumb things like, ‘Oh my dog died, I understand how you feel.’ It’s hurtful and they don’t know where to go when someone says this to them,” Douglas said.

In the support group, widows and widowers can share these stories and find comfort in crying and laughing together.

“It was exactly what I didn’t know I needed,” Marie DiFranco, a group member, said. “There’s a comfort to be found when surrounded by others who have suffered the same loss and are experiencing the same challenges. Without having to say a word they understand the depth of feelings.”

At the end of the program, Douglas holds a candlelight ceremony called “The Gathering” where her members light a candle for their loved one and she sends them off with a final wish.

“I give them a rock and I tell them that I wish that I have given them hope,” Douglas said. “They can put this on their night table or windowsill and every time they feel stressed they can look at the rock and know there’s always hope.”

Anyone grieving the loss of a spouse or parent can join the fall group by calling Douglas at 631-495-8541 or email widowednotalone@aol.com. The program will begin at the beginning of September. For more information, visit widowednotalone.com.