When Karen Nelson’s husband died in the spring of 2007, she felt alone.
Nelson was widowed at 52; three years younger than the national average. Her husband, Jeffrey, was only 50 when he died of brain cancer.
Nelson attended a bereavement group, which she said helped some, but after more than two years, she began searching online for a way to connect with people suffering the same type of loss. She came upon the website of Miriam Neff, author of “From One Widow to Another: Conversations on the New You.”
“It seemed to fit what I was looking for. She had gone through the trauma of widowhood,” Nelson said. “You can relate better to a person who has gone through the same thing you have.”
Inspired, Nelson created the Heart to Heart Ministry for Widows. All widows who contact Heart to Heart at http://efcsycdek.com/hearttoheart or 815-756-8729 receive a care package containing Neff’s book, two other books of encouragement and a homemade prayer shawl. Nelson meets one-on-one with each widow to let her know she is not alone, and if she likes, the widow may join the Heart to Heart support group. The group meets for 11 weekly sessions; after that members graduate, in a sense, though they can still attend social activities.
Though the group meets at a local church and approaches grief from a Christian perspective, Nelson emphasized that it is not about religion. Anyone is welcome, regardless of religious beliefs, she said, and no one is trying to convert anyone.
“It’s not a support group where anyone has to do anything,” she said. “If you want to participate in the conversation, you can. If you just want to sit and listen, that’s OK, too. ...These women already feel as uncomfortable as anyone can feel. It’s not my goal to add to that.”
People who have suffered other losses sometimes can’t appreciate how the loss of a spouse goes far beyond the emotional and into the practical, Nelson said. Widows may lose up to 75 percent of their friends, because they were “couple friends” or primarily friends with her husband. Once the initial mourning period is over, family can sometimes forget how lonely widowhood can be.
“When the support group started, one lady said it was the first time she had been out past dark in seven years,” Nelson said. “And there are other things. You get sick. Your car needs repairs and you need someone to pick you up at the mechanic’s. It’s little things you don’t think about when you have a spouse.”
Women in the group have talked about difficulty with tasks like paying bills, doing yard work and other things they didn’t do when their husbands were alive, Nelson said. Included in her care package is a list of local handymen and contractors vetted by the group, since women often feel vulnerable with a strange man in the house.
The group begins its third year this month. And Nelson says the recipients of her ministry aren’t the only ones who benefit from it.
“My husband would be stunned to find out I was doing this,” she said. “This isn’t like me. But it’s fulfilling to be able to help them. It energizes me.
I felt like I had to go through this experience alone. And I don’t want anyone else to have to feel that way.”