Ponte Vedra Support Group helps widows cope with grief
PONTE VEDRA BEACH — Over lunch recently, several women bonded over grief, anger, uncertainty about the future and the hole in their hearts.
They met in the reception room of a funeral home, but the location only heightened their connection. They were familiar with funeral homes.
“This is a new, unique sisterhood. A group of ladies who have lost our true loved ones,” said host Renee Williams, who recently organized Lilies of the Valley, a social support group for widows that meets monthly in Ponte Vedra Beach. She said it was the first of its kind in the Jacksonville area.
By the end of the lunch, they were exchanging email addresses, phone numbers and hugs.
“After the flowers wither, the sympathy cards stop… and you’re left trying to figure out life,” said Williams, who lost her husband seven years ago after 33 years of marriage. Only other widows fully understand the challenges, which she said range from loneliness and deep sadness to financial and business issues.
“Widows share a very unique journey,” she said.
Pat Murphy was a wife for 58 years. In March she became a widow.
Earlier that day her husband had cooked a steak. Then he died of a massive heart attack at the age of 83.
“It was a really good day,” she said. “It was blessed for him (because he didn’t suffer). This is the way we all want to go.”
But she wasn’t ready. She said her husband “postponed” end-of-life discussions about finances and other sensitive issues.
“I wasn’t ready,” she said.
The family already had a financial advisor who was offering help. Her son and daughter were also feeling well, but had ongoing health problems. Then the family cat got sick too.
“I’m a complete mess,” Murphy said.
Discovering the lily collection was a godsend.
“It means a lot to me. You tell people and they send you flowers and cards and then everything stops,” she said. During the lunches and hotlines the women set up for each other, there are other people who understand the pain and can offer advice but without judgement.
“If you’re having a bad day, you have someone to talk to,” Murphy said. “There was nothing like this here for widows.”
Julie Simone wasn’t prepared either.
She and her husband came to Florida in 2014 after taking a cross-country trip from their previous home in California to visit the national parks. They were looking for a place to semi-retire and eventually settled in St. Johns County.
They purchased and renovated a house and moved in in February 2015. Her husband was being treated for chronic back pain but was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. While he was being treated for cancer, she held on to hope. When he was under hospice care, she still held out hope. He died on June 23, 2015 at the age of 60.
Simon has since discovered that grief has no beginning and end.
“You just learn how to endure,” she said.
There was a day when she went into the backyard, lay down in the grass and cried and cried.
There was a day when she was trying to do some career networking and a career specialist asked her what she had been doing in recent months. The primary caregiver was Simone’s answer. Then I started crying.
“She asked me if I should do this now. I was sad. It was too soon,” she said. “I needed to meet other sad people.”
Before finding the Lilies group, I connected with a few other widows through Community Hospice. They get together on weekends.
“It was all about grief. That’s all we talked about. It’s nice to be able to say your husband’s name,” she said. “There is no judgement. No one judges anything anyone says or any behavior.”
When Marilyn Pagano became a widow a year or so ago, she wanted to talk about her husband. He was a heavy equipment operator who worked in the World Trade Center recovery effort after the 2001 terrorist attacks and was later diagnosed with lung cancer. She wanted to talk about his death at the age of 68. She wanted to talk about their lives. But when she returned home to Florida after burying her husband in their native New York, her friends and neighbors didn’t know what to say or what to ask. So they took her to lunch and talked about everything else.
“Everyone was afraid to talk about the elephant in the room,” she said. “They thought it was helpful not to talk about it.”
After lunch, Pagano said, she “came home and collapsed.”
“This is a journey we never asked to be on,” she said.
She was one of the people Simon connected with through Hospice and they came to Lilies’ lunch together. The Ladies of the Lilies are a mix of different ages and backgrounds. The circumstances of their losses are different. But that doesn’t matter, Pagano said.
“They are other people walking in my shoes,” she said. “People I can talk to, talk about our spouses…and not feel uncomfortable.”
When Williams started working in January as community affairs director at Ponte Vedra Valley Funeral Home and Cemetery, she began meeting many widows like her. She searched for a long time for a widows’ support group in the area but never found one. The women she met at work wanted that kind of outlet, too, so she created Lilies of the Valley. Funeral home owners Brent and Jacqueline Hedrick agreed to host the group and provide a light lunch for the meetings.
“If you build it, they will come,” Williams said.
By the third meeting on July 12, about 30 women had joined. Each luncheon includes a social time, a “sharing time,” and a featured educational topic, sometimes with a guest speaker.
The next meeting on August 9 will be for women only, where they will share their experiences and the lessons they have learned.
“Every heart has a story,” Williams said.
The Widows Social Support Group meets for lunch at 11:30 a.m. every second Tuesday at Ponte Vedra Valley Funeral Home, 4750 Palm Valley Road, Ponte Vedra Beach, FL 32082. Lunch is free, but reservations are required the Friday before each meeting. For reservations, contact Rene Williams at (904) 285-1130 or email@example.com. For more information, go to pontevedravalley.com/grief-support.