[Washington Window] Sometimes simple things – like a pair of socks – can reopen the gates of grief, say two widows who have come to share their stories at the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing.
Though Tara Gorman and Elizabeth Ratigan are at different stages of life – Gorman is a working mother of six and Ratigan is retired – they have some unfortunate common ground: Three years ago this month they lost their husbands to cancer within two days of each other.
They did not know this about each other when they first met – at Garfield Park in Southeast Washington, D.C., where they were releasing Monarch butterflies at the Wendt Center’s 2010 Memorial Day remembrance. But shortly afterwards, they met again at one of the center’s support groups and have since helped each other through the valley of the shadow of death.
No matter how inevitable, the women said, they were not expecting their husbands to die.
Gorman and her husband had never really experienced death before: “Our grandparents were still alive. Our goldfish was three years old.”
Yet a year after his diagnosis, her husband – a stay-at-home dad – was gone.
Ratigan’s husband was an athletic type who competed in triathlons. He was diagnosed with metastatic stage IV lung cancer during a routine medical exam, and died three-and-a-half months later.
“It was a huge shock to everyone who knew him, because he was so healthy,” Ratigan said. “You do everything right and you die. It’s just not fair.”
Since her husband’s diagnosis, Ratigan’s life had revolved around his care. So when he died “I had a total loss of purpose,” she said. “You have been there to make them well, so when they die you are totally at a loss. You are at loose ends.”
Gorman remembers navigating the grocery store in the aftermath of her husband’s death, heartbroken and dazed. “All the kids are acting out, and you’re so fragile.”
In different ways, both women found their way to the same place.
The Wendt Center
The Wendt Center was founded in 1975 by the Rev. William Wendt, a former priest of the Diocese of Washington. Today it serves around 7,000 people in the D.C. metro area – including about 2,500 through the D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (which investigates and certifies all deaths that occur as the result of violence as well as those that occur unexpectedly, without medical attention, in custody, or pose a threat to public health).
Initially offering hospice care, the center gradually shifted its focus to grief counseling, and now serves children and teenagers as well as adults. More recently, it has expanded its scope to engage issues of trauma, such as domestic violence and sex abuse. Today its offerings include one-on-one counseling, group support and programs such as an annual children’s grief camp.
The nonprofit’s main office is at Connecticut Avenue and Van Ness in Northwest D.C., and it has satellite offices in Northeast and Southeast. It employs a core staff of 11, a part-time staff of around 25 and has a $1.5 million annual operating budget, mostly funded by individual donors.
“It’s a community of support, of really embracing anyone who wants to share in this journey in whatever way helps them, whatever way speaks to them,” said Susan M. Ley, the center’s executive director.
“What I got from the Wendt Center were practical ways to live my life and to cope,” Ratigan said. “The [support] group has been unbelievable.”
“It saved my life,” Gorman said.
Group members have supported each other through decisions such as selling houses, where to scatter ashes and “what to do with the stuff.”
Like the socks.
“I couldn’t throw away my husband’s dirty tube socks,” Gorman said. “Because they were his.”
She shared her struggles on a blog, posting entries like “How to Help a Widow” and listing some suggested dos and don’ts. Like don’t complain to a widow about what a slob your husband is.
“That was one of the don’ts,” Ratigan said. “Don’t tell me about your husband’s dirty socks, because I don’t want to know.”
Life after death
In addition to the grief, there was unexpected fallout from friends.
“A lot of couples distance themselves,” Gorman said. “You’re a poster child for this could happen to you.” Some wives became wary of their husbands once she was “single.” And there was pressure to get over it, move on, start dating: “People get done with your grief really quickly.”
Then there were the children.
“Oh they were angry, so angry,” she said. Her 3-year-old daughter was breaking her own toys. “Daddy was her best friend. He was a stay-at-home dad.”
The family began grief counseling together and then did individual counseling.
“It’s hard to be ‘other’ as an adult,’ Gorman said. “It’s incredibly hard to be ‘other’ as a child. It’s really hard to be the kid with the dead dad.”
What really clicked for her 8-year-old son was group therapy, she said. “That has really helped in his healing tremendously. To be not the only kid; this didn’t only happen to me…There was such a strong connection that I’ve never seen in any other group of kids.”
Children, “who oftentimes play in the midst of their fears” need specialized care, Ley said, explaining that a lot of this is activity based.
“Part of the work, particularly in a group setting, is to have experiential exercises,” she said. In one activity, children decorate a mask, portraying what they show to the world on the outside and what they really feel on the inside.
“Another exercise might be a small puzzle with pieces that might show what life was like before. And then you take the puzzle apart and you talk about what it was like when it was taken apart – you felt shattered – and then you talk about how you might put it back together.”
Children also work on memory boxes – a plain, white box like a cigar box that they decorate and fill with small mementos, photos, tickets and the like.
“It becomes a very comforting, small, manageable item a child could go to when they’re wanting to reconnect,” Ley said.
During May’s Camp-Forget-Me-Not, 52 children decorated small wooden sailboats in memory of their loved ones, and launched them, one at a time, onto the Severn River near Annapolis.
At last year’s Memorial Day remembrance organized by the Wendt Center, family members and friends honored their loved ones by releasing 200 butterflies into the sky.
And during a 2008 DC City-Wide Homicide Commemorative Event at St. Matthew’s Memorial Baptist Church, Anacostia, family members of homicide victims came forward, spoke the name of their loved one and lit a candle.
“It was very moving and at the same time appalling that this many families had been affected by murder, and particularly how many children – sometimes multiple times,” said Tom Cooke, president of the center’s board of directors and a parishioner of St. John’s, Georgetown.
In addition to these thoughtfully planned commemorations, the center also coordinates short-notice candlelight vigils around the city, often in the aftermath of violent crime. These are sometimes held outside the person’s house, with police blocking off the street.
“Sometimes the family knows what they want to do; have a prayer, pass out a little memorial of the person,” Cooke said. “This isn’t a complicated service. It isn’t a religious service, but it’s a chance for the person to be honored.”
“Death comes in so many different ways,” Ley said. “There is the whole range of experiences.”
The journey to healing is different for everyone, also.
While the support group Ratigan and Gorman joined no longer meets, its members remain in contact with each other, bonded in ways that are difficult to describe.
“I don’t think I’ve ever dealt with something so complex in my life,” Gorman said. “You just don’t have a clue unless you’ve gone through it.”
Going through it, she found friendship and support at the Wendt Center, founded by an Episcopal priest who believed that “no-one should have to grieve alone.”