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Support for surviving spouses
Support for surviving spouses

Jan 03 2023 / Round the Table Magazine

Support for surviving spouses

2022 MDRT EDGE charity partner Soaring Spirits connects a community of widowed people around the world.

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Photo credit: Michael Dare

Yes, that is Wonder Woman. It’s also a real person dealing with the loss of her husband.

The scene is both a metaphor and a fact as Lynda Carter, the actress who played the superhero on the 1970s TV series, stands on stage during the 2021 CNN Heroes All-Star Tribute and presents an award to Michele Neff Hernandez, co-founder of Soaring Spirits International, the MDRT Foundation’s 2022 MDRT EDGE charity partner. At the time, Carter had only been widowed for 10 months. Before the event, Carter spoke with Neff Hernandez — whose husband was killed in a bicycling accident in 2005 — and explained that the introduction written for her to deliver didn’t adequately represent how difficult it is to be widowed.

“As the camera pans from her to me, what I’m thinking in that moment is You can do it, Lynda, completely forgetting that I have to speak on that same stage myself soon,” said Neff Hernandez of watching a seasoned actress struggle with the words on the teleprompter. “It speaks to the power of community.”

That community is the more than 4 million widowed people who have found support and connection through Soaring Spirits since its inception in 2006. By bringing together people who are grieving, the nonprofit organization provides understanding and compassion in a time that can be lonely and confusing.

After Neff Hernandez lost her husband, she realized that not only did she not know the answer to a host of questions — from how long to wear her wedding ring to what to do with her husband’s clothes — but that she longed to connect with other people who understood what she was feeling and allowed for sadness without trying to fix it. She started searching for other widowed people and asked them all the same 50 questions. That journey led her to realize that while there is no one right answer for anyone who is grieving, creating a place where everyone’s stories could coexist was hugely important.

After all, when Neff Hernandez met Michelle Dippel, who had lost her husband to cancer just four months earlier, Neff Hernandez, only two months removed from her own husband’s death, had no idea what she would say.

This is the worst thing that ever happened to me; is it horrible for you too? Neff Hernandez remembers thinking. “I was wrapped up in feeling alone, and the only thing I could offer was we can be alone together,” she said.

Not long after, a trip together to visit Dippel’s husband’s gravesite led to the first inklings of what would become Soaring Spirits, an extension of the support Neff Hernandez and Dippel found together. The organization now offers: 

  • Packets for newly widowed people (available for free by request at soaringspirits.org
  • Online forum of virtual meetings 
  • Pen pal program to establish a continued relationship with someone else who is grieving 
  • In-person events that meet twice monthly via regional social groups in the U.S., Ireland and United Arab Emirates 
  • Camp Widow events over a weekend in the U.S., Australia and Canada, offering what Neff Hernandez says is a blend of “conference, retreat and high school reunion”
  • One day Camp Widow pop-ups, compressing the weekend program into a one-day event supported by the regional social groups

At the 2022 MDRT EDGE in Orlando, Florida, USA, participants in the MDRT Foundation service project helped create 3,000 of those packets for newly widowed people, connecting them with important information for their own experience as well as Soaring Spirits’ programs. In addition, money raised during the MDRT EDGE goes toward supporting weekly Zoom calls for newly widowed people to help them through the early days of widowhood and include them in a community.

Want to get involved? Beyond donating money, you can spread awareness to widowed people, no matter when their loss occurred, Neff Hernandez said. You can also hand out “You are not alone” business cards and refer to a section of the Soaring Spirits website for people who are not widowed but want to support those who are.

“Don’t assume a person isn’t interested in knowing we exist if they lost someone years ago because they probably have more complicated feelings than you know,” Neff Hernandez said, “and they are part of the widowed person community, so the next time someone they know becomes widowed, they will have those resources to share with them.” 

What to say and not say to grieving clients

Neff Hernandez recommends the following for advisors:

  • Acknowledge that grieving is hard. “So often people set aside the emotional challenge of outliving the person who was supposed to be part of your life forever. Without saying ‘You can do it,’ just acknowledge that it’s hard. Period.”
  • Understand their decision fatigue. This person is managing everything that used to be managed by two people. If they struggle to respond to an email or answer a question, recognize they’re making a lot of decisions every day, and do what you can to make options as simple as possible.
  • Respect the impact of trauma on the brain. “I have had the experience, and know many others who have too, of going to a professional who speaks to them like they’re stupid because they can’t remember things or repeat themselves. The truth is our brains are on overload. Speak to people with respect because their brain is not broken; it’s just on pause.”
  • Know that each widowed person’s experience is different, and no reaction — from crying constantly to never — is better than another. Treat each person uniquely.
  • People may repartner when they’re ready, but never offer another relationship as a solution. “It happens all the time, especially for younger widowed people. It’s reported as one of the most hurtful things people say. We’ve had many, many people say, ‘At the funeral, someone told me I was going to get another husband’ or ‘Someone introduced me to a lady that I would think was great when I was ready.’”
  • Say the name of the person who died, and take time to listen. “The person in front of you is already thinking about that person, and it’s refreshing when someone else speaks about them, asks with true compassion, ‘how are you doing,’ and is willing to listen to the answer.”
  • Consider other questions. Instead of “How are you?” you could ask, “Is there anything you’re struggling with right now that I can provide support for?” or “Is there any part of this that is particularly hard because it was something your partner would be doing?” or “I have been thinking about you and wondering how things are going.” “It really comes down to that sense of human kindness,” Neff Hernandez said. “If we support grievers and allow them to be sad and changed by what they’ve experienced, they have a much better chance of healing in a life-affirming way than if they’re surrounded by people who just want them to quickly move on.”