A steady stream of silver-haired people make their way into Los Altos Lutheran Church on Tuesday nights, in trios, pairs and solo. Their easy social mien reveals an outcome rather than a starting point – the gathering of 60 or more local residents each week assembles people adjusting through grief and toward a new phase of life.
The Mid-Peninsula Widows and Widowers Association gathers for its formal meetings at the church each week at 7:30 p.m., but its activities stretch across the calendar. The 200 or so members, who range in age from mid-50s to over 100, find the group when they are looking for comfort, and role models for starting over when life and partnership take a change of direction. The only qualification to join is shared experience – anyone who has lost a spouse through death is welcome. The group, founded initially as a self-help support circle at El Camino Hospital in 1976, morphed into something greater as participants found that caring and encouragement grew to include new opportunities for personal growth, friendships and vision for future activity.
The club sends a monthly newsletter highlighting local events of community interest, recaps of activities and suggestions for other ways to connect among members. At its Tuesday night meetings, the club invites topical guest speakers, celebrates birthdays and organizes games and discussion groups. The First Year Club gathers new members who are at a similar stage in their passage from grief back into community events and hosts get-acquainted events focused particularly on newcomers. The larger group calendar includes optional activities for nearly every day of the month, many times multiple in a day. Whether it’s a walk at Shoreline Park, dinner at Chili’s or a game of whist, bunco or golf, if a member wants to organize it, others are invited to join in.
Getting out of your grief
Jan Lee, who serves on the board and was association president last year, said that after her husband, Steve, died “too young,” “I found myself terribly depressed and knew I needed to do something.” She got the phone number of another widow she knew through acquaintances to ask for help.
“She said, ‘I will meet you there Tuesday night at 7 p.m.’ And the rest is history,” Lee recalled.
Some participants in the group find new romance through the community as well as friends, though that doesn’t necessarily preclude continued participation.
“One of my friends, who started in the group shortly before I did, met a guy, they ended up being a couple, and people would ask her, ‘How come you’re still going?’” Lee said. “She would say, ‘My intention was not to meet someone, it was to have something to do with people I have things in common with.’”
Lee has traveled abroad with people she met through the group as well as making a regular routine out of local events.
“What draws this group is wanting to get out of your grief and back into the world,” Lee reflected. “There comes a point where, literally, I was sitting in my grandmother’s rocking chair thinking, ‘If I don’t get out of here, I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ I worked, but I needed something (more) to draw me out into activities.”
In the association, she found a “loving, kind generous place that I just felt welcomed in,” she said. “After having that awful death experience, you know that everybody knows.”
That means people expect that sometimes there will be crying as well as laughing, sometimes in close succession, even years after an initial loss.
“Nobody’s going, ‘What’s wrong with her?’ – they just totally understand,” Lee said.
Members often start, in the first weeks and months of a loss, with a more traditional grief support group before they are ready to seek a more outward-looking social group like the Widows and Widowers Association.
“You’ll know when you’re ready, there won’t be any question in your mind, that this widows and widowers group is for you. I firmly believe that everyone is different, but everyone graduates – I won’t say that the pain stops, but you just tuck it away,” Lee said.
Shared interests and experiences
Los Altos resident Ed Irvin joined the organization 18 years ago, approximately six months after his wife died. He said it pulls people out of their houses to meet new friends and get exposed to how living alone can still mean sharing your life with a lot of other people.
“We have the venue for helping people just carry on with their lives, and it seems to be very desirable for most people who come in,” he said.
Irvin, who was active and loved to bowl, hike and play card games, discovered that having a common theme of lost spouses bonded him to the group on top of those other shared interests.
“I don’t have many past experiences with groups like this. I never joined the usual community groups, Rotary and those kind of things,” he said. “I was busy working and raising my family, until my wife died.”
Irvin, 91, also made individual connections through the group that became deeply meaningful.
“I met a woman that I got attached to not long after I was in the organization, and we shared a life together for about seven years until she died of cancer,” he said.
But that wasn’t a final chapter in companionship. He met Mountain View resident Susan Schumann, also through the association. They each kept their own houses and lived separately, but they shared in the social events of the club – and the growing admiration they had for each other.
Marc Rogers, Schumann’s son and a Los Altos resident, said the association had “made an epic impact on her quality of life.” He added that the effects of the companionship, travel, speakers and activities were obvious in his mother’s life, and credited her closeness with Irvin with making the last decade spectacularly different than it might otherwise have been.
“He has more energy than I do – he’s a freak of nature,” Rogers said affectionately of Irvin, and recalled the unsettling and charming experience of watching his mother head out to association events in full costume at Halloween.
“It’s pretty shocking to see your mom dressed as Dolly Parton, with a blond wig and a large front side and the whole nine yards,” he recalled.
Over the course of a decade as partners, Irvin and Schumann became close with each other’s families, traveled together and experienced the benefits of companionship. And the exposure to continuing loss it brings. Schumann died in January, and Irvin described the good fortune of finding such companionship, but also “feeling down” since she died.
“It was worth it. It’s invaluable to share experiences in your lifetime with another woman. Even though it is difficult when you lose her – it’s a tragedy. And it affects you emotionally for quite a long period of time. You’re back in the same boat you were when you lost your spouse – it’s exactly the same thing all over,” he said. “You just go through life and choose the opportunities that present themselves and try to enrich your life and try to enjoy it as much as possible. Enjoy what you have at any instant in time – and don’t worry too much about the future.”
For more information, visit mpwwa1.org.