“We hiked. We biked. We ran. We just had a great time together,” said Neff Hernandez.
But that all changed one evening in late August when Phillip went for a bike ride and was hit by a car and killed.
“I didn’t even know what to do with myself,” said Neff Hernandez. “Everything in my life has changed, from where I slept, to where I ate… who was I going to check to see if I had a flat tire.”
While she had a great support system to help her through this difficult time, she said none of them knew how to deal with her grief.
“They wanted to, but couldn’t understand what I was going through.”
Neff Hernandez realized she wanted real world stories about how other widows handled this new reality, so she started to seek out and learn from them.
“Every time I sat down with one of these people, I felt understood,” she said. “I thought if I could get these widows together, what a difference it would make.”
“I just wanted a space where I could laugh and be free and not be judged,” said Neff Hernandez. “And if I could help widowers find each other more easily, they would find a friend who would live their widower experience with them.”
Camp Widow was the first program she created in 2008. The annual three-day events bring together widows and widowers from around the world to attend workshops, meet and make connections.
Since Camp Widow, the nonprofit has grown to also include 70 regional chapters across the United States, as well as correspondents and programs specifically aimed at the LGBTQ community.
To date, the organization has reached over 4 million people worldwide.
“It is about helping widowers to live in community with each other, so that someone who has testified to their pain will also testify of their life as they keep moving forward,” said Neff Hernandez. .
More recently, the organization added a virtual program for those who have lost a partner to Covid-19. The 24-week program creates space for participants to be open about their unique struggles, such as not being able to say goodbye, not having a funeral, and being isolated during mourning.
“It was such a powerful moment when they first came together and understood that everyone can safely express whatever their Covid experience is,” she said.
For Hernandez, while this job can be difficult and stokes his own grief, it is also very rewarding.
“This gap that existed after her death, which still exists to this day, is what fueled the desire to create an organization that serves around the world,” she said. “It was an amazing experience building an organization which is in large part because he loved me so much.”
CNN’s Meg Dunn spoke with Hernandez about her job. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
CNN: How did the idea for Soaring Spirits come about?
Michèle Neff Hernandez: I was mourning this person who was an essential part of my life. And I didn’t know how to do it. I felt like I had to find other people who knew what I didn’t know.
We do not see widowhood as something to look for as a model. We don’t think, “I’m having this difficult experience; I should look for someone else who did it and look for inspiration there. And after about a year of connecting with widowed people, all I wanted to do was put them in the same room. I have learned so much from them. And I felt for the first time, full of hope. Hope in a way that was tangible. Hope in a way that makes survival not only seem possible, but even thriving might be possible. I thought if I could make it easier for widowers to find each other what a difference it would make. I am the person to help them find their person.
CNN: What is the inspiration behind Camp Widow?
Hernandez: I also wanted to give people the opportunity to celebrate life, because when you are widowed, if you are in mourning, often feeling happy in any way is a shame. And Camp Widow is a weekend event that creates a home for anyone who has had that experience. We can celebrate each other. We can celebrate each other. We can celebrate our loved ones. The goal is therefore to help widowers to rebuild their lives.
CNN: Are there any requirements for who can or cannot participate in Soaring Spirits?
Hernandez: Soaring Spirits uses a broad definition of the word “widow”. We include all genders, all types of relationships. The only requirement is that your person – the one you thought you would spend your life with – has died.
I remember the first time I spoke to a widower on the phone. I realized he was looking for a group that would let him in. And I couldn’t imagine having someone whose heart had been broken like mine was standing outside a room where other people were receiving help and knowing they couldn’t go. From that day forward, inclusiveness has been one of Soaring Spirits’ key values, as no one who has been heartbroken this way should be standing in front of a door looking out the window wishing they could enter.
CNN: What is your hope for the widowers you help?
Hernandez: My hope for every widowed person who interacts with Soaring Spirits is that they will come away knowing that there is a community out there ready to accompany them every day to come. It is about being in community so that we can mold each other on the possibilities available to us, while recognizing how difficult it is.
It’s not just about “Put that aside.” You can’t hold a grudge. It’s not about, you know, “grieving is going to be something that makes you a better person.” It is, “We accept you where you are. We also believe in a future for you. And if you can’t believe in a future for yourself, that’s okay. I will believe it. for you until you can believe it And I’ll keep believing it for you no matter how long it takes you to get there. “
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