What I Learned at Camp Widow

For those of you who know me, it probably won’t come as a surprise that I identify as being an ambivert. In case you’ve never heard the term before, for me it essentially means that I’m shy until I’m not.

This past weekend, I had the incredible opportunity to attend Camp Widow. [If you or someone you know is widowed, I highly suggest you look into it. You can find more information here.] When I first looked into it, I knew it would be a bit of a challenge for me financially and reached out to friends and family to help by contributing “Camp Bucks” to help offset the cost. A former employer with an incredibly philanthropic and generous nature paid my entire camp registration (and numerous other wonderful people donated, as well, helping reduce the hotel costs).

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View from my hotel room

And so last Friday morning found me driving from Orlando to Tampa, becoming more anxious and excited with each mile. As I arrived to the hotel, my room was already available (thank you, Marriott Rewards) and I was able to stow my things before checking into the registration desk for camp.

Within the first hour of being there, I ran into a few members of some of the online widow’s groups of which I’m a member. There were a few hellos and hugs, and it seemed that the immediate connections I had heard about before coming to the “widow convention” were actually happening.

Fast forward a few hours, after a couple of breakout sessions and an early lunch for me, and I was suddenly feeling like the awkward girl at the junior high dance who shot up to 6 feet tall at 12 years old and is being avoided by all the prepubescent boys who haven’t. It was as if I was odd man out. And it was not a good feeling.

When we broke for actual lunch (somehow I misread the schedule and ate too early), I spent a bit of time outside soaking up the sun and chatting to a few other widows who were outside smoking. Although the conversation was pleasant, I just didn’t fully connect with them, and eventually I escaped to my room and began texting two of my closest “normals” (a phrase some of us use in the widowed community to distinguish between widows and non-widows). I explained how I was simply too introverted to speak up in the session because there were many others who were all too willing to share.

In waiting for an opening, I never got a chance to say my piece. I was angry with myself because the whole point of the weekend was to fully immerse myself in the experience which I believed could lead me to healing and some new lifelong widowed friendships. I felt if I couldn’t even muster up the nerve to speak up in a group of anywhere from 15 to 50 women in the smaller sessions, how could I make these connections?

They each allowed me to vent and then gave me some encouragement and a gentle shove back out into the fray. The afternoon went a bit better, although I still felt somewhat like an interloper – the single friend at the wedding without even a kids table to which I would be banished. Instead I wandered around trying to find “my people”.

Don’t get me wrong. Everyone was nice enough, and the organizers of the group went out of their way to ensure everyone felt included. My feelings were just that – my feelings. And completely self-created. That doesn’t make them any less real, though, you know?

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During this time, I had been witness to numerous instances of unconditional support these widow’s had for one another. In one session, a woman broke down telling her story, and before the first tear even hit the floor, half a dozen people closest to her jumped up and offered her a box of tissues (which were strategically placed everywhere throughout the weekend, including our own personal packages located in our welcome bags). No one batted an eye. No one looked away, unsure of what to do. No one was embarrassed or annoyed or uncomfortable. Person crying = tissues required. End of story.

Hugs were abundant, as was hand holding and back rubbing, and there were many knowing head nods and grunts of agreement when someone mentioned things like crying in the shower so no one sees or driving past the same store three times but forgetting to turn into the parking lot or the incredible difficulties of navigating the dating world as a widowed person. Connections were being made, but I just couldn’t quite seem to hang onto the passing rope myself.

Later, as I headed downstairs for dinner that first night, I ran into a couple of women my age who were staying on the same floor. They were college friends who had unfortunately become widow friends. One of the women was extremely outgoing, and she just sort of collected me and before I knew it, they asked me to join them for dinner. And suddenly, I was part of a small group. As we stood in the buffet line, another woman who was also alone stood behind us, and as we discussed the benefits of standing in the pasta industry versus the one for the mashed potato bar, this same “I have no filter” woman welcomed the newest member into our ranks.

As we sat around the table for dinner, we were entertained by the stories of one widow at our table who had been dating for some time and was in a fairly serious relationship. Ms. No Filter was an impressive interviewer and could have given Larry King a run for his money, but the Meryl Streep lookalike who is dating a movie actor (seriously, it was a bit surreal…) wasn’t phased by it and simply answered the questions with grace and aplomb. [Random thought (Batty strikes again): This may be the first time in my life I’ve used the word “aplomb”. I’ve seen it in print, but I’m fairly certain it’s use faded several decades ago, and I’m not sure it should be making a comeback… But I digress.]

After dinner, I headed to the lobby where I sat and listened to the live music for a bit just thinking back on the day. While I sat there, however, I began to see small groups of Camp Widow attendees gathering to extend their socializing, and once again, I began to feel like an outcast. I retired to my room where I began messaging another friend, this time a widower who is often up,late at night, and always willing to lend an ear. He talked me off my proverbial ledge and after we said good night, I cried into the giant teddy bear (a gift from my children last Mother’s Day) I had brought with me, and finally fell asleep.

The next morning, I dressed and went to the lobby where I got a cup of coffee to go,

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Got a selfie with Meroba

and started walking along Tampa’s Riverwalk. The sun hadn’t even started rising yet as I began to meander along, trying to analyze the events of the day before, and my feelings about it all. As I strolled along, sipping my Starbucks, I noticed a few statue busts and plaques, so I started reading them. Yes, I’m that person who likes to read the plaques on the walls.

Each was dedicated to a prominent member of Tampa history during were fascinating in their own right. But the second one I came across made a small impact. Her name was Meroba Hooker Crane, and she became a Civil War widow at age 19. That didn’t stop her from running / helping to run (depending on which story you choose to believe) one of Tampa’s old hotels. I stood there in the pre-dawn and thought, if old Meroba could do what she did after becoming a widow at 19 years old, then I should be able to pull myself together at 50.

After taking a selfie with her bust (which was slightly humiliating as a random jogger witnessed this lunacy), I was off again. As the sun rose, I sipped and strolled and pondered, alternately talking to myself and A (my late husband if you’re new to my blog). I then received a text from one of the “norms” that said in part “I hope today you find your voice in a room of strangers” because my voice mattered. My story mattered. And I wasn’t there to watch, but participate.

IMG_1486I was rolling that around my brain, testing its strength, when a short distance down the path, I stumbled across a part of the sidewalk that had quotes carved into granite markers. (At least I think it was granite, but don’t quote me on that… ha! See what I did there?? Yes. Dork…). Eleanor Roosevelt, an incredibly fascinating woman, once said “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

It hit me then and there that it would be my choice exactly what I got from the weekend. That I could continue to feel like an interloper or I could decide to make a connection despite my awkwardness. I returned to the hotel as the sun continued to rise in a much better frame of mind.

Saturday began with an inspirational keynote address from the director of the program, who created the organization as a widow who felt alone with nowhere to go because she didn’t want anyone else to feel that isolated. (It was as if she was speaking directly to me when she talked about letting the light in a little at a time until it didn’t fill you with dread as it once had. The rest of the day was filled with more workshops and breakout sessions, and my new attitude and I were able to fully immerse ourselves in the experience.

That evening, as I got ready for dinner, I went back and forth with myself whether or not I wanted to dress like a pirate for the Pirate Ball. I zipped downstairs to the lobby bar and ordered some liquid courage (it was, fittingly, a Rum Runner), bringing it back to my room to drink while I dressed. While in the lobby, I began to hear whispers about the big charity even taking place at the same hotel at the same time.

It was an annual black tie event and would be attended by wealthy businessmen,

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Newest members of my tribe

professional athletes and other celebrities. I cringed thinking I would be dressed like a pirate, but ultimately decided if I wasn’t going to fit in with the folks in tuxedos and ball gowns that would be wandering around the hotel, I might as well embrace it, which is how I came to be dressed as a pirate dancing with a roomful of widows while the monied folks were being serenaded by Chris Isaak and Joey Fatone down the hall.

Again, at the end of the evening, I wandered down to the lobby, got a drink from the bar and settled in to listen to the acoustic guitarist playing there. After awhile, a couple of women came by, each of whom I had spoken to on two separate occasions earlier in the evening. Turns out they were sisters, one widowed, one not, who were planning to spend a few days together following the camp. They invited me to join them for drinks and French fries, and afterwards bit of encouragement, I decided “Why not?” I’m not outgoing enough to break into an existing circle, but I wouldn’t allow myself to not latch on when an opening was offered to me.

So, I followed them into the restaurant bar where we sat for a few hours (I lost track of time) discussing life and widowhood. We discussed the differences and similarities between our stories, and exchanged Facebook information before finally calling it a night because the widowed sister had talked me into doing a 5K the following morning. (One of my dinner companions had encouraged me earlier in the evening, as well, and since both women said “I don’t run… I walk it”, I figured it was A’s way of pushing me out the door.)

The next morning found me strolling along the Riverwalk in my “pajamas” (I wasn’t exactly prepared for the Pajama Run, so I improvised with yoga pants and a t-shirt with my sleep mask around my forehead), sipping coffee once again (well, it wasn’t quite that slow, but we weren’t exactly rushing, either), this time with one of the new friends I’d made. We talked about our lives, our lost loves, and what it was like for each of us to be navigating these treacherous waters known as grieving. As we crossed the finish line to cheers of the many who completed the course ahead of us.

A short while and a quick shower later, I was back in the ballroom for our farewell breakfast. As I looked around the room to see the nearly 260 other men and women who were in the same position as I am, I was both humbled and comforted. Although literally millions of people have been widowed before me (an estimated 7% of the US population in 1998), when you’re going through it, you may know only a handful, making it a somewhat isolating experience. But being in a room that size and knowing “these people ‘get it'” was reassuring.

I left that room and Camp with a half-dozen or so new Facebook contacts, an abundance of hugs and “so great to meet yous” and “hope to see you agains”, and even one “meeting you was the highlight of my weekend!” Although it took me days to finally catch up with her, one widow I had met online but somehow kept missing finally texted me and said “I’m at the pool right now and I’d really like to meet you!” (Turns out, she wasn’t anywhere near the pool, but after eventually finding each other and sharing a laugh over “widow brain”, we finally got to chat a bit before we each headed home.)

On my drive back that afternoon, my thoughts were filled with the things that had happened over the previous few days. The Director of the program had “warned” us that we were leaving the protective bubble that was Camp Widow, but we should now be better equipped with more coping tools. I definitely am, and I also have a few more soldiers in my grief Army. We can be a fierce, protective group, you know.

I learned that I am not alone, no matter how I may feel that way sometimes.

I learned that grief shaming is real, and we each have to do what’s best for ourselves, regardless of how it makes other people uncomfortable. If if they don’t like it, they can Sit Down and Shut Up.

I learned that there are so many more like me than I realized, but that doesn’t mean we are all destined to be best friends simply because we each lost someone. We can have compassion over the shared experience, but we are still different people and not every widow or widower will like me (and vice versa). As Ms. No Filter said, “Our husbands died. That doesn’t mean we have to like each other!”

I learned that putting down on paper an open letter to someone who has hurt me can be incredibly cathartic (and I know I’m not the only one who felt a sense of relief after an open assignment turned into a series of “F-You” letters).

I learned that strangers can become friends quickly.

I learned that once I finally stopped worrying about fitting in and forcing my way into somewhere I didn’t belong, I found where I did.

And I learned that I want to go to the “widow convention” again. (I hear they may be recruiting*, so let me know if you need more information. Or simply go to the website.)

A big thank you and virtual hug to everyone who made this weekend possible for me. You have no idea what it meant to me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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Kelley Lynn with a roomful of widow/ers waiting to laugh.  And laugh we did!  (That’s me, 3rd row back second from the left.)

*This won’t make much sense to anyone who hasn’t seen Kelley Lynn, a widow who has turned her pain into humor and left a roomful of widow’s and widowers with tears of laughter streaming down their faces. Incredibly funny, and an extremely warmhearted individual.

© 2018 Many Faces of Cheri G All Rights Reserved

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