Creating the Community I CraveBy Emma Pearson
May 24, 2022
13 February 2022
Photo of Gordon, Michelle & me at Soaring Spirits International’s Camp Widow, Toronto, November 2018
Back in the early days of widowing, as I heard the likes of Megan Devine talk about the importance of community, my reaction was something along the lines of “Hrrrmph”. I didn’t get it. I didn’t quite see how hanging out with other Grieflings would ease anything whatsoever. I didn’t have a clue what I needed. I didn’t want to be in my own company. I couldn’t see myself hanging out in the company of others. And I didn’t imagine others wanting to spend time with me. So why did people bang on about Community?
Bit by bit, rather than my obstacles or disbelief being dismantled, it is more that my awareness of the power, belief and trust in community, started to increase. It took 12-18 months following Mike’s death for me to truly sense any kind of solace, or companionship from others, even though I had “met” Grieflings through the Refuge in Grief “Writing Your Grief 30-day Programme” very early on. I think it was just too soon for me to be truly “touched, seen and felt” at that stage. I was isolated from myself as well as from others.
I remember coming across Soaring Spirits International, the organisation for Widowed people, really soon – days or weeks – after Mike died, and I shut the website down in horror as I learned about “Camp Widow” and saw photos of jolly people hugging, laughing, having a lark. Ugh. Joining the Writing Your Grief programme made more sense. I could stay isolated, scratch into my loss of Mike for an hour or so a day, and not need to be with other people.
But some of the connections I made during the WYG course remained, well past the duration of the 30 days – whether with widow.er.s or other varieties of Grieflings – and in time it felt like a face-to-face meet-up would be good. I prefer grieving in English, it seems, and so most of the people I came across ended up being in North America, which is a bit of a bore when it comes to physical connection. I still don’t know if there is anything available in French or English locally, and now that the world has gone virtual, it doesn’t much matter. But back in 2018, I started to reach out to people I had “met online” as I travelled to their cities – for work or holiday. I met some of my Grieflings face to face – Gordon in Chicago, Rachel in Washington DC, Charlotte from Canada was visiting London at the same time that I was visiting with the then three kids. It was weird and wonderful and magic. It made a real quality difference to our on-line connection afterwards.
And so some of us planned a proper get together, in Toronto, in November 2018, at a Camp Widow event. By then I was ready not just to write, but also to talk. I was even ready to hug, laugh, and lark around. A long way to go for a few heart-felt hugs, but it has been so worth it.
But right around the corner were Julia’s deepening struggles, dropping out of school, hospital stays, suicide attempts and eventual death. I retreated again. Even if, by then, I felt I knew the drill – self-care, write, read – I couldn’t be talking to people, let alone be with them. By the time I felt ready for community again, it was late February 2020, and I joined a Compassionate Friends support weekend in the UK – just before the world shut down. But it was not a supportive experience for me. I didn’t have a place. I didn’t fit. I didn’t belong. Despite being so “early grief” as regards Julia, I was “too experienced” a griever, too grief-literate, relative to other people there. I wanted comfort and didn’t receive any. I felt people – the facilitators – were clunky in how they repeatedly asserted, “Child loss is the worst loss”. At that stage – and even now – it didn’t feel to be a helpful statement, grieving so much for Mike as I was, associating Julia’s death with the loss of Mike, as I did, and still do. And that most people attended with their spouses felt like salt being rubbed into raw wounds. It was wholly horrendous. So I licked my wounds and retreated again.
But by then, I knew I had to find community. I knew that community made a difference. So I explored, and asked around, and researched, and eventually came across the names of two people who had lost both a spouse and – as it happens – two children. People who somehow still breathe, and even smile and engage in the world. And yes – they might be years along in their loss-strewn life, but that still nurtured some hope in me. I engaged to work professionally with one of them, Tom Zuba. A gem of a man. And the other, a woman, I tracked on facebook from time to time. Enough just to know she existed. I found and read books – autobiographies. Inevitably horrendous reading, but somehow providing some balm. There is something about knowing I am not alone, even when I don’t know these people. Even though I abhor hearing, “You are not alone” from others. It is one of those half-truths, a platitude – meant to soothe, but it doesn’t. No-one should say it to anyone. The full, whole truth, is, “Yes – you are alone in this. You need to carry this alone. And others have experienced something similar”. Because guess what, there is no-one else who carries “this” load.
I digress. I still feel homeless. Rudderless. Anchorless. Lacking in felt-support and community for my particular combination of losses. And yes, sadly I feel I need to leave Edward and Don out of this. But “just” the losses of Mike and Julia are nigh on impossible for most people to fathom. I need to find real people like me. To talk to them from time to time. To hear from them from time to time. Even if they don’t live anywhere near me.
And so – this week, I took steps towards setting up my own new community – for Multiple Losses, and specifically spouse and child (or even, god forbid, children) loss. As of this morning, we are three members. There will be more of us in time, for this shit happens to people.
What are my hopes? To connect. To learn people’s stories. To share my own. To be listened to even when I ramble on and repeat myself. To be supported when after many easier days I have much harder ones. To be understood when I cannot get all excited about Valentine’s day with a new love because not only was it so significant with an old love, but because my last Valentine’s day with Mike was so utterly full of despair. I am not ready to let go of that yet. To have a few more people in my life who know that whatever I look like, however I behave, however resilient I appear, however competent I might be socially and professionally, whatever skill I might bring to other areas of my life, these enormous crevasses, these gaping holes, the crushing pain – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual – never go away, even when I am asleep.
It’s not going to be therapy, but I don’t doubt that it will be therapeutic. It will be validating. Honouring. It will provide a pocket of belonging, a safe harbour, for some moments.
I think that has become how I can now define Community. Safe harbour. A place of refuge. A brave and safe space for truly being seen as a wholly whole human being in a wholly holey life.
Should you know someone who has lost a spouse and a child, feel free to send them this link: