Moving Forward After Losing a Spouse, With Help from Other Widows
There is no normal for someone who’s lost a spouse.
That’s what Ellen Kamp discovered when her husband of 33 years, Eric, suddenly passed away in 2006. The Kamps competed in dog shows. “He had just won a very big show in Western Massachusetts, and everyone was high-fiving and congratulating him because he was relatively new to the sport,” Kamp says. As he walked to the parking lot, Eric suffered a heart attack and died. He was 58.
“Most women describe that first year after, and I agree, as a kind of fog,” says Kamp, now 66. “I was terrified, absolutely terrified. I had no idea how I would stay in my house, manage two dogs, and commute to New York City for my job. For me, it was just getting through the day, one day at a time. I had no future focus at all.”
Years later, Kamp can see how things came back together for her. “It takes years to rebuild a life, not months or weeks,” she says. “The first year is a fog, but the second year it becomes real. You realize, ‘This is my life.’ Your family and friends go back to their lives — their normal. But there is no normal for a widow. Widows have to create a new normal.”
“The first year is a fog, but the second year it becomes real. You realize, ‘This is my life.’”
There are 11 million widows in the U.S., and nearly 1 million new widows per year. The W Connection, which Kamp co-founded in 2007, is a network of widows who provide counsel and services to help one another move forward in their lives. Kamp’s decades of experience working as a human resources professional in financial institutions — her focus was organizational and leadership development skills — proved key to starting the not-for-profit organization.
Before he died, Eric was a photographer who worked from home, while Ellen commuted to Manhattan for her job at Morgan Stanley. She’d never lived alone before, never maintained a house, never had sole responsibility for all the details of a life that she and Eric had built. For two months after Eric died, Ellen went back to work full-time. She struggled. “I was never able to resume the kind of responsibility I had,” she says. “I just didn’t have the bandwidth to do it.”
Just before the first anniversary of Eric’s death, Ellen had a bit of a breakdown, she says. Realizing she needed help, she joined a bereavement group that helped her start to manage her grief. But dealing with her emotional upheaval was only one part of rebuilding a life. Every aspect of a woman’s life is impacted by her widowhood. Kamp soon realized that there weren’t many resources to help widows take practical steps forward after they overcame the initial shock of the loss.
Kamp founded The W Connection in partnership with a coworker from Morgan Stanley, also a recent widow, one who had her lost husband three months after the birth of her first child. The organization had no funding, but with the help of pro bono work, for things like web design and legal issues, Kamp and her co-worker got The W Connection off the ground, starting in the New York area. Now, seven chapters of the organization across the country serve nearly 500 women with services that help women adjust to life as a widow.
The mission of The W Connection is not just to talk about grief, but to act on it. When Ellen’s co-founder, who is 15 years younger than she is, became a widow, Ellen served as a de facto mentor to her. This led the two to create a W Connection mentorship program in which new widows are paired with “experienced” widows to create one-on-one relationships. “It gives them hope,” Kamp explains, “because they get to see someone who’s come out of this on the other side.”
The goal, she says, is to help widows understand that they have control — to make decisions, to move forward, to turn their pain into something productive. “We call it post-traumatic stress development,” she says. “I didn’t coin the phrase, but it’s the idea that you can actually take a very traumatic experience and grow from that.” Meetings — Kamp chaired the Long Island chapter — focus on practical topics like dealing with guilt or managing loneliness. Several women in The W Connection have become artists, or pursued new productive passions to help create stability, a framework for their new life.
Newly retired from the organization she co-founded, Kamp is looking ahead at the possibilities of her life. “Maybe it will be something with kids since my focus was on early childhood education in college,” she says. “My parents were Holocaust survivors. There’s something in there that I might work on to keep their stories alive. I’m not rushing into anything just yet. I am enjoying this respite from 41 years of work.” But she has learned to move forward. “One of the many things I have learned from being a widow is that though we had no choice about becoming widows, we do have a choice about how we live the rest of our lives.”
Sponsored by Edwards Lifesciences.