Veteran Newsday reporter Becky Aikman got kicked out of her widows' support group. After losing Bernard Lefkowitz, her husband of 20 years, to a rare cancer at age 65 in 2004, the 49-year-old Aikman went looking for "constructive, helpful advice about moving forward in my life."
To her dismay, the leader of the support group she joined had a different idea: "He felt we should all sit around and focus on how sad we were." When Aikman demurred, the leader cut her loose: "Maybe you just don't fit in. Maybe you shouldn't come back."
"I was a wife without a husband," recalls Aikman, "and now I was a widow without a widows' support group."
So Aikman formed a six-woman group of her own — the Outlaw Widows, she called them — and convened them one Saturday a month to compare notes. They also undertook fun adventures designed to help them overcome loss: a spa visit, a cooking class, a museum tour, some lingerie shopping, even a trip to Morocco. How each woman fared in a year of get-togethers is detailed in Aikman's new memoir, Saturday Night Widows: The Adventures of Six Friends Remaking Their Lives.
Q: I was struck by the differing causes of the group's losses.
A: Yes — one husband in our group had died from an ATV accident. Another dropped dead [in his wife's presence] from a sudden heart attack. A third had committed suicide; his wife was the one to find him, and she chose to do the book because she wants others to recognize that depression is an illness like any other.
We talked a lot about this in our group: Is a slow loss better or worse than a sudden one? Well, they're both lousy, but in different ways. The sudden loss is very traumatic; the longer loss puts you through the agony of watching someone you love suffer. I wouldn't choose either one.
Q: You note that initially the widows "had practically nothing in common. The youngest was 39, the oldest 57. One was a blunt, scary-successful lawyer, one a chatty homemaker, and every post-feminist option in between." How did you meet them?
A: I didn't know a lot of other young widows — we're rare — so I had to actively search them out. One person I approached was a real estate agent, because I knew they meet a lot of people going through transitions. I also sought out a travel agent who arranges trips for solo women, because I figured she would come in contact with a lot of widows. But overall it was totally random and unscientific.
Q: You did do a lot of hard-science reporting for the book — enough to feel confident dismissing what you call "the five bogus stages of grief."
A: The "five stages of grief" were never intended to be about grief, but about dying. More recent studies show that grief comes in waves: intense at first, then you alternate between feeling normal and feeling sad, and gradually over time the waves become less pronounced. I visited the Loss, Trauma and Emotion Lab at Columbia University, and discovered that the true grieving process looks nothing like the long-term, debilitating sadness many people seem to expect. That's why I based the Saturday Night Widows on the idea that getting out into the world with friends who have a sense of humor is helpful. Getting back to normality is helpful. New experiences help, too.
Q: If we have no community in which to grieve, are we grieving alone?
A: Americans are spending more and more time with immediate family, which makes it harder on us when we lose a member of that family. We don't have the broad ties we had in the past. Everyone in my social circle was married, for example, and suddenly I was the odd person out. I wasn't socially active while my husband was sick. [After he died] I felt I had to get out there and forge an entirely new community of people I could have companionship with. It was hard work.
Q: Your strategy was that "together we might find a way to triumph over loss."
A: From the moment I was on my own again, I craved role models for how to live a solo life, so having this group of women [to learn from] was fantastic: We could talk about how we were [each] approaching things, and I could draw from [the] others' approaches to dating again or finding a new place to live.
Q: So you're thinking of franchising "Saturday Night Widows"?
A: [Laughs] Could be! The women in our group were extremely eager to form this kind of connection, [because] it's hard to find other people [in similar straits]. They were relieved I found them! People [at readings] ask me, "How can I find a group like yours?" They crave the connection. You can go to a standard bereavement group, sure — but in my experience that was not helpful.
Q: In 2008, you married again — to Bob Spitz, who happened to be a widower himself. And you describe feeling "scandalously free" about your newfound sexuality: "Having lived through the worst, we found it was hard to take mere inhibitions and insecurities seriously." That's something you don't find in too many grief memoirs.
A: Well, widowhood did remind me of a second adolescence! It's scary to have sex with someone new after being with the same person for so many years. On the other hand, I think we're more confident, and more comfortable with ourselves, than we were as teens. Bob and I were able to just "go for it." We didn't get too hung up on the details.
Allan Fallow is the book editor for AARP Media.
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