Group helps widows learn to navigate new life challenges

Life support system: Bebe Schwartz (left) hugs Vicki Krase at the January meeting of W Connection, which helps widows move on emotionally and financially.
Life support system: Bebe Schwartz (left) hugs Vicki Krase at the January meeting of W Connection, which helps widows move on emotionally and financially. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 20, 2014

Susan Gross wasn't ready to be a widow.

Her husband, Alan, had been sick for a decade with diabetes and complicated back problems, but he wasn't dying. Nobody ever said he was dying.

And then one day he was gone, and she was alone, trying at age 60 to make sense of a new and unanticipated life.

"It's overwhelming, making decisions, and [figuring out] finances, and you just want to be left alone," Gross said in an interview.

Today, 11 years after her husband's death, she's sharing her hard-earned wisdom with new widows, organizing the Philadelphia chapter of a growing volunteer association called W Connection.

It's not bereavement counseling. It's not a 12-step program, religious practice, or mental-health service. It's instead a place for widows to share private thoughts, fears, and hopes, and most of all to get support in figuring out how to go forward. The association provides ongoing training and mentoring for women navigating one of life's most profound challenges.

About 15 belong to the local chapter, a number sure to rise in a nation where women continue to outlive men by an average of five years.

The United States is home to 11 million widows - 9 percent of the adult female population, according to Census data. Projections show that 75 percent of all women will be widowed at least once.

With that can come wrenching emotional and economic consequences, at a time when both lifespans and living costs are rising.

That's where W Connection tries to make a difference.

What began in 2010 as one small group in New York has grown to eight chapters in the Northeast, with prospects for expansion in the South and West.

"There's no support out there for the women who have to make this huge transition," said W Connection cofounder Ellen Kamp of Long Island, who spent her career helping lead financial-services firms. "I've heard more and more women say, 'This is giving me my life back.' "

Kamp was 56 when her 59-year-old husband died suddenly, killed by a heart attack in 2006. She looked for a group that could offer more than grief counseling - and couldn't find one.

Then, only 18 months later, close friend Dawn Nargi lost her 43-year-old husband to cancer. Together they created their own organization, believing that widows would seek out other widows for help and to help.

"Susan was one of the first to approach us," Kamp said. She called Gross "a great example of how women can step up and lead."

Gross, now 71, taught for 33 years in the Philadelphia schools. She was married to husband Alan for 41 years before he died in 2003, and together they raised two children in Cheltenham, where she still lives.

The worst part of being widowed?

At first, Gross said, it was the disorientation, the overwhelming sense of having been knocked down - even as the world demanded she take on new responsibilities.

But here's the thing, she said. It can get better. It's possible to find pleasure in life. It takes time, and it takes effort.

Today she fields calls from newly widowed women who are as confused and hurt as she once was, and tries to help them talk through their worries about the future.

"At the end of the conversation, you can hear the difference in their voice. At the beginning they're scared, and at the end they're laughing," Gross said. "[To] see someone who has gone through it, and who has been successful, it's a wonderful, positive thing."

The Tuesday night gathering is surprisingly cheerful, 10 women wearing red, heart-shaped name tags, easily sharing advice and experience. Widowhood is a club that no one wants to join, but now that they're in it, they try to help one another.

The local W Connection meets monthly at the Rodeph Shalom synagogue on Broad Street. Each session has a topic, either personal or practical - estates, guilt, success, and, on Tuesday, finance.

How many people here, financial adviser Linda Kent asks the group, handled the household finances before being widowed?

Only two hands go up.

Kent discusses the documents that people need to determine all their sources of income, the basics of bonds and stocks, the pros and cons of various investments, the wisdom of taking financial advice from TV gurus such as Suze Orman.

"It's like Dr. Oz - would your really want Dr. Oz to do surgery on you?" Kent asks.

Shelly Becker Israel, 66, came to the meeting because she wants to be a mentor, to be for others what she didn't have for herself when her 41-year-old husband died of cancer in 1984.

"I wish I had me when I was 37," said Israel, of Elkins Park. "I wish they would have told me I would smile again. That I could love again."

The women benefit from talking to others in the same situation.

Judy Dougherty, 73, lost her husband five years ago - it still seems fresh. The Glenside couple were in Florida when Charlie collapsed.

Being part of W Connection has helped, "and I'm not a 'group therapy' kind of person," Dougherty said. "People understand. They really understand."

Alan Gross worked as a banker and insurance broker, but in his 40s he turned to photography, specializing in shore pictures. Susan keeps his website active, clicking on to revisit his work.

People say the first year is the hardest. It isn't, she said. You're numb the first year. It's the second year that's the worst, because the shock wears off.

Today Gross devotes more and more time to W Connection, promising that every woman who calls will get one thing: "Tender, loving care."

"We've developed such close, sisterly kind of relationships," she said. "A number of us say, 'It's a shame we had to be in this situation to meet each other.' "

215-854-4906 @JeffGammage

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