Life after loss

Support group helps widows rebuild their lives amid grief

Alice Bishop, left, of Toledo, shares a story while laughing during a support group for widows.
Alice Bishop, left, of Toledo, shares a story while laughing during a support group for widows.

For more than 45 years, it had always been “Edward and Anna.”

People who knew the Toledo couple James Edward and Anna Jones knew them together. But that all changed on Valentine’s Day, 2008, when Mr. Jones died from diabetic complications. Ms. Jones’ grief was so powerful and present that she cannot recall the days that followed his death.

“After his death, for a year I was looking down on the world instead of living in it,” she recalled. “I don’t remember anything from a year after he died. My children said I did stuff and I have no recollection of it.”

They were married 47 years.

She had her family and dog to lean on for various types of support; but not everyone has a big support system. Sometimes widows need more than friends and family: They need someone after everyone has gone home, someone to take their call in the middle of the night or help them clean their house, someone to teach them how to handle the home finances. They may need skills to compete in the job market. They may need a group that keeps them active in life and the community.

Those needs that go beyond emotional support were recognized by Toledoan Marian Idell Watson. She applied her gift of making friends wherever she goes and being a confidant to women to create W.E.S. & I, Widows Empowered Strengthened & I.

W.E.S. & I is a support group for widows named after Mrs. Watson’s husband, Wesley J. Watson. An officer with the Toledo Police Department, he died in 2014 from complications of a liver transplant.

Mrs. Watson called upon her friends, like Ms. Jones, to move her vision of the organization forward. The group was incorporated in 2015 and meets monthly. Mrs. Watson and volunteers are building a community to support widows, assist them in accepting loss, and encourage them to move forward in all aspects of life.

Mrs. Watson was inspired by a revelation she had nine years ago.

“She called me and told me she had a vision; the Lord had given her this vision of the widows club, and she wanted me to be a part of it,” Ms. Jones said.

Mrs. Watson wants to help widows while also contributing to the community.

“We can encourage the widows and lift them up. If they have gifts within themselves, we can encourage them to get back up, to get back to work,” Mrs. Watson said. “It’s not just about widows.”

She and the volunteers are already living by example. Ms. Jones is part of an advisory board charged with reaching out to community leaders and building relationships with sources that can assist widows in the long-run. 

Ms. Jones is a retired business professional. She was an employment supervisor for Owens Corning for 24 years and is familiar with labor laws because of her prior experience working at the Civil Rights Commission. She will apply those professional talents to assisting widows with job searches.

“Helping is healing,” Mrs. Watson said.

Mrs. Watson knows about the dangers of being stuck in sorrow after a significant other’s death. After her husband died, a friend implored her to accompany her to Arizona. Her friend, Teresa Evans, was suffering from a fatal illness, and the trip was helpful to both.

“I had to still continue to help someone else. It helped me heal. It sort of filled a void,” she said. “Whereas I would have been home probably sitting on the couch, or probably alone crying and feeling lonely.”

Ms. Evans died in 2015.

Widows Josephine Cleaves, left, and Aleada Whitehead, right, both of Toledo, hug each other during a support group for widows at Reynolds Corners Library.
Widows Josephine Cleaves, left, and Aleada Whitehead, right, both of Toledo, hug each other during a support group for widows at Reynolds Corners Library.

Following her husband’s death and that Arizona trip, Mrs. Watson was in deep grief and searched for a support group that provided more than mental or emotional assistance. She wanted something hands on. She did not find it, so she created it.

“I didn’t want to go to hospice. I didn’t want to sit in a group where people would pour out their feelings and cry. I wanted to be in a group where we could rise above that pain,” she said. “That’s what I needed. I knew that’s what I needed and I know that’s what God wanted from me.”

The first group meeting was attended by 12 women. Now about 25 to 30 women attend each session. W.E.S. & I is open to all, regardless of faith or background. Mrs. Watson plans to eventually create a group for widowers as well.

As Mrs. Watson has learned, widows are all around us, and after the funeral and burial services are complete, many are forgotten.

“They just come. They are just here. They are just hurting,” she said.

Dr. Tufal Khan, chief medical officer at Mercy Health’s Behavioral Health Institute, has provided psychiatric care to many people, including widows. During a phone interview, he cited the 2011 U.S. Census, which found “in the age group 65 and above, 40 percent of the females are widows. In that population it is [only] 13 percent males.”

He said the ages of his patients vary.

“The main thing is getting adjusted to the new life without their spouse. … It is a big change. Basically your whole world changes,” he said.

The timing of the grief process is dependent on how someone died. For example, in dealing with a loved one’s terminal illness, where death is expected, the grief process begins while the loved one is still alive.

“You start grieving beforehand, as opposed to someone with an unexpected or sudden death, after the death you start grieving,” he said.

Grief presents itself in multiple ways, he explained. The reaction to loss could include emotional components of sorrow, anxiety, loneliness, guilt, and anger; physiological symptoms which could affect sleep and appetite; cognitive signs such as problems with attention, decision making; and behavioral changes, such as withdrawal, loss of interest, or hopelessness.

“We say that loss is forever, but grief is not. It definitely takes time to adjust to a new life without your spouse, but you need to put your life back together,” said Dr. Khan, adding that helping others does help one to heal.

He typically recommends starting with the basics. 

“Take care of yourself. Take care of your diet, exercise, sleep, go out with your friends, or spend time with family. If you don’t have family or friends, find a grief support group, because talking your way through grief helps,” he said.

He said a group like W.E.S. & I can help widows put their lives back together. W.E.S. & I also emphasizes social assistance to widows, planning fun events like dinners and bowling; a world cruise may be in the future.

The psychiatrist said it is important to identify the difference between the normal grieving process and complicated grief, which would require the care of mental health practitioners in addition to support groups. 

Complicated grief typically is when someone has a pre-existing psychiatric disorder or condition, compounded by a tragic loss. The person may already be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, or major depression.

It could also include someone who suffers a prolonged grief process where loss of appetite and sleep begin to affect physical health. A complicated grief may also include someone who cannot return to work after a reasonable amount of time. Medical attention is needed in that situation.

The degree to which the grief affects a person depends on many factors, Dr. Kahn said, including the role of faith in their lives. He said they should eventually be able to move forward without any setbacks.

“But a group like this will help them get on their feet and will help them be functional and reintegrate into their normal lifestyle,” he said.

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