THE BLOG
04/04/2014 03:19 pm ET Updated Jun 04, 2014

Camp Widow Revisited: Hope and Healing With the People Who Get It Most

"There are times to stay put and what you want will come to you, and there are times to go out into the world and find such a thing for yourself." -- Lemony Snicket

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  • Death Sucks.
  • Hope Matters.
  • Widows Rock.
  • Long Live Love.

These four simple mottos, proudly worn on t-shirts and displayed on various trinkets from the gift shop, capture the energy of the weekend-long retreat known as Camp Widow, a program of the Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation.

Camp Widow. Upon hearing the word "widow", one who has never experienced the loss of their life partner might expect to see small groups of elderly women dressed in black, speaking in hushed voices between heart-wrenching wails over the loss of their beloved husbands.

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And throwing "Camp" into the mix, the same person might expect to find these same wailing widows cry-singing Kumbaya around a fire, with noses blowing into tissues keeping the rhythm.

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But Camp Widow is so not these expectations.

Instead, Camp Widow looks like this:

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And this:

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And THIS:

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While the the demographics of the widowed community have likely remained the same over generations, our perception of what a widow looks like is shifting. No one understands this shift more than a widow or widower because our community, once shrouded by the dark veils of shame and isolation, has been exposed in the last decade or so through the veritable explosion of media sources. We see young and old, straight and gay, married and unmarried, from all walks of life -- widowed days, weeks, or years ago because of war, tragedy, long term illness and/or age. No matter what the circumstance, new members of the club no one wants to join have access now. And access is the key to finding support, particularly peer support, when members needs it most.

From my own experience, turning to my instant community of other widows was essential for my ability to cope with the grief after losing my fiancé in the World Trade Center attacks on September 11th. Fast forward twelve years later and wanting to pay it forward, I went on a mission with Project Rebirth to find a place where widows could go for similar support. I found Camp Widow and wrote about some of the details of the first weekend I attended here.

Last month I attended my third camp, and like the prior two I was completely blown away with awe after witnessing the healing which took place. I could struggle to find the words to express it all, but instead I will share the thoughts of two widows who've done an incredible job of writing down what's in my heart:

And that is the thing about being surrounded by a couple hundred widowed people at a place called Camp Widow -- everything feels natural. Nothing is forced. Emotions happen the same way that breathing happens. We go to grief workshops or Round Table discussions, and we open up with complete strangers who seem like intimate friends. We have cocktails and sit by the pool and laugh and joke around together, and we sit inside each other's pain, and learn and grow and change from looking into the story of someone else and what they lost. We see ourselves more clearly and with better eyes, because those around us are willing to stare into the darkness with us. They get it. They see it, and they aren't running away.

-- Kelley widowed 2.5 years

I leave the conference on Sunday and head for the airport... I am wearing my "Hope Matters" shirt, and I realize... I am different. I am changed and I can feel it. No longer am I a woman who is fighting with all her might against the idea of being a widow... suddenly, I AM a widow - and no part of me is fighting it inside. I am walking around a crowded airport literally wearing my identity, and for the first time in this whole horrible, excruciating, exhausting, terrifying, earth-shattering journey... I am PROUD.

-- Sarah widowed almost two years

If you or anyone you know is struggling to cope in the aftermath of the loss of your life partner, Camp Widow can provide the hope you're looking for:

  • Camp Widow West 2014 will be held in San Diego, July 11th-13th.
  • Camp Widow Canada 2014 will be held in Toronto, September 26-September 28th.
  • Camp Widow East 2015 will be held in Tampa, February 6th-8th.

Tanya is one of the five participants of the Peabody-award winning documentary, Rebirth, which will be a part of a permanent installation of the National September 11th Memorial Museum, opening in May 2014.

Learn more about Tanya's journey at tanyavillanuevatepper.com