Being a widow can feel like being the Bee Girl.
I’m talking about that little tutu-wearing girl dressed like a bumble bee in Blind Melon’s “No Rain” video. She’s tap-dancing her little heart out in her little yellow and black outfit, but she’s rejected by a world not sure what to do with her general bee-ness. No one gets her, until she discovers a group of other tutu-wearing, dancing people who take her in joyously. She doesn’t have to explain herself, because everybody there already understands. She’s free to be herself, in all her bright, tap-dancing glory, because she’s found her tribe.
Camp Widow’s a lot like that.
“What is the thing that usually makes you different that makes you the same here?” Michele Neff Hernandez asks. “What if every person who was widowed could come together?”
In 2009, five years after Neff Hernandez’s husband Phil died in a motorcycle accident and she became a member of this odd club that no one in their right mind would want to join, she created the first Camp Widow in San Diego, a conference for other members of that club. They could hear speakers share their experiences, talk out their own feelings in workshops, or even run a 5K. But they would do it among other members of the tribe.
Eight years later, there are Camp Widows in California, Toronto and Tampa, where in March I attended to both lead a workshop and to participate, because I joined that club almost two years ago. I honestly didn’t know what to expect - is this going to be a touchy-feely Kumbaya thing? Constant therapy? A maudlin cacophony of weeping? Just super depressing?
There was, of course, a lot of emotion. Some crying. One honest-to-goodness “Oprah”-worthy crying moment where myself and the other widows wrote a message to our lost love, read it to the crowd, and then attached it to a little origami crane hanging on a banner with our loved ones’ names written on it.
“The one we did in Myrtle Beach, I thought ‘We can’t be right on the ocean and not do something.’ So we took these recycled glass hearts, wrapped messages written on biodegradable paper, and threw them in the ocean,” Neff Hernandez says of an earlier ritual. “People in these beautiful gowns are standing on the beach, throwing out these messages. It was something.”
Those rituals felt rewarding and necessary. But like any other sort of camp, there was also a lot of laughter, some of it snortingly loud. There was opportunities to access a bit of righteous anger at this dumb thing that had happened to us. Some chats about sex. Many sardonic, non-beatific references to our own mortality - one of the most popular T-shirts at the gift shop read “Death Sucks.” (I bought the shirt, the coffee mug and the travel cup.)
My three days at Camp Widow felt like letting go a long, tortured breath I didn’t know I was holding in - an unexpectedly deep and transformative exhale. There was something so freeing about being able to talk, or cry, or even laugh - there was so much laughter - around people to whom your story, and this thing that has come to, in some way, define you, is not weird. Because it’s their story, too.
“It’s not necessary to have to tell people you’re a widow,” Neff Hernandez says, “because they already know.”
The workshops were instructive and, most importantly, very real. The one I led was titled “Grieving In Public, or How Not To Punch Mostly Well-Meaning People In The Throat.” (It’s harder than you think.) There were others on investment tips, job searching while grieving, and round table discussions for both believers in God and those who are atheist and agnostic. Every single one taught me something I didn’t know I needed.
Dean Sperantsas, a widower from Boca Raton who was attending his second Camp Widow, liked that “the particular interests of the widowed population are addressed. So, those who were widowed suddenly are addressed separately from those who were widowed due to illness.” He, like me, was also “totally surprised at how lightly we tread on difficult subjects, allowing each to share as they saw fit, while at the same time experiencing joy. There is a word for the sentiment of simultaneous experience of sorrow and joy in Greek - charmolypi.”
He’s not the only one who felt that simultaneous joy. Leigh Prince, who’s 32 and lives in Lakeland, found this place “when I was newly widowed and about halfway through my pregnancy. Meeting others who had survived the nightmare I was going through, others who had found happiness, joy, and even love again, gave me hope and made me feel like I wasn’t alone and that I would one day find those things again, too. All I wanted at that point was proof that it could be done.”
Daryl Northrop, who lost his wife April to cancer in 2016, says that coming to Camp Widow with members of his Alexandria, Va. grief counseling group, was part of “a conscious decision to not “do the guy thing where I shut down. Not only did I shut down to those around me, I shut down to myself - not even willing to acknowledge that I was in pain and needed emotional support.
“I had never faced such a powerful emotional event as my wife dying, and I did not want it to destroy me, or leave me emotionally crippled. I was thrilled to meet everyone there, and although we were quite different in our own ways, the camaraderie of having gone through the same type of loss was powerful,” he says. “The simple fact of knowing you are not alone is amazing.”
Some of my favorite moments were the brutally honest and funny ones, like the seminar on dating led by Tanya Villaneuva Tepper, who lost her firefighter fiancé Sergio on Sept. 11, 2001 at the World Trade Center. She talked about giving yourself permission to know when you are ready to date, and being comfortable with having loved one person who died while still loving someone else.
“Love doesn’t just go away,” she says. “And if you’re dating someone who’s threatened by the fact that you were in love with someone else, you shouldn’t be dating that person.”
I also laughed obnoxiously through “My Husband Is Not A Rainbow,” a presentation by comedian and widow Kelly Lynn, about the dumb things people say to widowed people, thinking that they’re helping, when sometimes they’re not. She has us write down the worst thing anyone had ever said to us while grieving, and gave out goofy prizes for the most egregious (One was a query from a deceased’s ex on when the widow was gonna go ahead and sell their stock and give her a cut.)
I’d hoped to get some tips on coping, on dealing with my grief while moving forward and without damaging my kid. I got all of that, but, more importantly, I got to have a three-day dialogue with people who, as Leigh Prince said, had survived this thing that I was navigating and had done it enough to pass that wisdom on to other people, while still admitting that it had sucked. We could say our person’s name out loud, into the air, and not feel bad or weird about it. It was unexpected and beautiful.
“I remember early on, when I was so grieving, to think that I would never create new memories with Sergio,” says Villanueva Tepper, who now lives in Miami. “But I get a lump in my throat when I tell you that I’ve created so many more new memories when I talk about him. People know him now. When I share his story we are creating new memories.”
Those memories, and those lessons, came even outside of the conference. One night, I went out with Leigh and another camper looking for dinner and a cocktail, and walked past a club with a lot of young, well-dressed people in it. We were a little older and not as fly, but we went over to the bouncer to check it out anyway.
“Are you ladies in town for a conference?” asked the bouncer, whose name was Angel.
“Yes, we are,” one of us said.
“Great! Which conference?”
We all looked at each other, little smiles on our faces. Should we? Yeah, we should.
“Well,” Leigh said, “we’re all widows.”
“Huh?” Angel said, clearly confused, like maybe we were joking, and then looking genuinely concerned about us when he realized we weren’t.
“It’s OK, Angel,” I said reassuringly, as we smiled and decided to go somewhere else. That might have been weird for Angel. But we were with our chosen tribe of bees. And we felt like we belonged.