Soaring Spirits is a community providing widowed men and women an outlet to connect with one another. This offers them a chance to overcome the challenges of surviving a spouse or partners death.
Soaring Spirits was founded by Michele Neff-Hernandez with the goal to give widowed men and women friendships, inspiration, and especially encouragement as they learn to live without the person with whom they intended to spend the rest of their lives.
Michele suffered a loss of her own in 2005, when here husband lost his life in a cycling accident, causing her world turn upside down. Widowed at age 35 and uncertain of her future, Michele lacked fellow widowed people with whom she could relate and share her story. After failing to find grief support resources that served her individual needs, Michele recognized there was a missing resource for younger widowed people.
Finding it difficult to identify with the much older individuals who had also experienced a loss, Michele sought to find widows closer to her own age and life circumstances.
Initially, Michele thought she might write a book on the subject. After many months of traveling the country, interviewing widows with similar experiences, Michele came to the realization that spending time with other individuals who had experienced similar loss or tragedy, and were willing to share their story were genuinely helpful.
Michele expressed how powerful each instance in which strangers were willing to share their own widowed experience. After each interview Michele found herself walking away with another new friend, and a new perspective of what it meant to be widowed.
Most importantly, Michele found there was still hope for her future!
After a year of these interviews, Michele began to write her book.
Returning often to the feelings of understanding she experienced while interviewing other widows.
Michele really wanted a place where other widows in her same situation could find the comfort and understanding she found in a widowed community. Michele wanted to bring them all together in one place.
That “place” would become Camp Widow®.
Camp Widow® is a program created with the idea in mind of bringing widowed people together, to provide support, understanding and inspiration for one another.
Michele found that while she identified strongly with younger widows like herself, it became easier to relate with older widowers than she first imagined. What really mattered was having a diverse community of others who understood the life-altering experience of becoming widowed.
Soaring Spirits and all its endeavors adopts this mentality.
According to Michele widowed people uniquely understand the challenges that other widows face, but commonalities will exist across the board when grieving a loss; chiefly the need to understand how you’re life has been completely altered since losing that person. All the ways that person affected your life or made an impact has now changed. For widowed individuals, that tends to touch upon every aspect of their lives. From where you sleep, to where you eat, to where you would vacation, for widowed persons life can be forever changed in just one moment.
However, it is important to remember others are grieving that same loss. In Michele’s case, her husband’s parents were grieving his loss. His children grieved his loss. His siblings grieved his loss. He was a track coach, well loved within our community. Many people mourned his loss, all dealing with grief from their own point-of-view. The unique aspect of Michele being widowed was that in all the ways others mourned her husband, she found herself able to identify with all of them so strongly.
Michele remembers walking in her front door, feeling her husband’s absence. Recalling it as palpable, “You knew he wasn’t coming home.”
The hard part for a widowed person isn’t necessarily realizing that your partner will never come home; you realize that relatively quickly with repetition. But more so, it’s the struggle of having to recreate your life. The survivor needs to let go of the dreams that you had with that person, because whether or not you decide to still pursue those dreams, your life will always be forever changed as a result of that loss. You literally have to rebuild your life.
That’s really what I built the Soaring Spirits Program to do; to help widowed people recreate their lives.
It would be as if you were to take a beautiful and beloved vase, throwing it to the ground into a million pieces. You’re determined that you will find a way to glue that vase back together. But even if you were successful, that vase would never be the same again. The need to put things back together, or create something else is a challenge that is tough for many people to overcome. What we say to people is they always have the opportunity to move forward, there are really only two choices (allow your loss to swallow you whole, or find a way to move forward).
As much as you may want to, you cannot go back.
This is often the crux for many widowed people, finding themselves in an area in-between; which is “I want what I had, but I can’t have it.” On some level they may understand this, but on the other hand finding inspiration and energy for the motivation in moving forward is challenging. For some it may be a new relationship, for others it’s a different view on life, maybe a career change. Whatever the case, widowhood tends to propel people into something new.
For everyone it’s different, sometimes dramatic and other times people may not even notice. But Michele has yet to meet a person who has experienced loss, and not been changed in some way from that grief experience.
Searching for presenters for the first Camp Widow®, Michele encountered Matt Logelin who at that time was working on his own book about the death of his wife during childbirth, and the two quickly became very dear friends. Together Michele and Matt worked on practical resources for newly widowed individuals, a roadmap to navigate the challenges of widowhood. For Michele and Matt, being widowed at such a young age and so suddenly raised countless questions. In conjunction with the Liz Logelin foundation, Soaring Spirits created a Newly Widowed Checklist.
“What is the first step?”
One day you find yourself living the life you expected, and within just minutes your entire world is upside down. Now you’re planning a funeral. Michele and Matt wanted to create something that would aid newly widowed persons, allowing those early thoughts following widowhood to be met with some sense of guidance.
Certainly the Newly Widowed Checklist is not supposed to be an all-encompassing list, but rather a few things that are extremely important to consider. Michele believes strongly that most widowed people allow others into their lives that they trust, people who are willing to help. For a lot of people independence can be a point of pride, but for the grieving allowing for support can be incredibly rewarding. So many people are willing to offer they’re help and support, this list is also a way to funnel the energy of these passionate individuals. With all of these things in mind, the list really became a resource for newly widowed people. With the goal of providing newly widowed people with some foresight, giving warning to the challenges ahead.
Michele also began the “You are Not Alone” Outreach card program after hearing a local story within her community. A colleague from Soaring Spirits was in line at the pharmacy when she overheard the conversation of another just ahead of her. It seems that the person was picking up a prescription for a friend who had lost her husband in a tragic accident that very day.
Wanting nothing more than to connect this person with Soaring Spirits, but lacking a resource to do so, Soaring Spirits created outreach cards as a result, providing an easy way for concerned people to connect any widowed person with the programs of Soaring Spirits. Choosing a printed card was a deliberate choice, often times the word “widow” is a vexing word. For many people when the word is first applied it can be daunting, hearing it from others can be scary. It’s a foreign concept that has suddenly entered your life, so for most having the outreach card is an invaluable resource. The outreach card most importantly acts a reminder. At times going through widowhood can feel as if you’re losing your mind. It’s comforting to know you can spend time with other widowed people who can relate and assure you this behavior is normal.
Outreach cards are intended for anyone to order, easily available for free on the Soaring Spirits website. Each order contains five outreach cards, with a personalized message to each widowed person from the Soaring Spirits community. Included as well, links to all the immediate services Soaring Spirits has to offer, including the newly widowed checklist.
Helping the newly widowed navigate these uncertain circumstances, offering what help can be made available. A blank space is also left on the inside of the card for any contact information or if desired, a personal greeting.
The Outreach Card Program has been an incredible success, distributing over 40,000 messages to colleagues, siblings, and close friends. With so many applications, these cards have been an invaluable resource.
Soaring Spirits has a team of ever-changing writers, with over 29 different contributors that make-up the Soaring Spirits Widow’s Voice blog, a library collection of everyday posts from the past 7 years. Many of these writings tend to focus on the now, choosing not to look towards the past, but rather the reality of experiencing widowed life from the writer’s point-of-view. The contributors are all widowed people with diverse backgrounds and unique stories to tell, in various states of their widowed journey, whether that maybe changing jobs, thinking about dating again, or getting re-partnered. It can be a common misconception for many that widowhood lasts for a certain amount of time, but the truth is widowhood will last a lifetime.
Learning all of these lessons and experiencing great loss, provided Michele and many other widowed guidance. Soaring Spirits considers the widowed experience to be an arc, starting from the day you’re widowed until the end of your life. The experience of outliving the person, with whom you intended to live the rest of your life, changes and shapes you. The Widow’s Voice blog has allowed for Soaring Spirits to address many different points of view. Examining the diversity among widowed, while sharing challenges and successes has provided a gateway resource for many.
It is extremely important to Soaring Spirits to make sure this resource is made available. With talented blog contributors and a vast archived library, the Widow’s Voice blog is a great place to start for any widowed person looking for a broad perspective of the widowhood experience.
Camp Widow® has three locations, one in San Diego, California, and another in Tampa, Florida, and the last in Toronto, Canada. A team of volunteers runs all three locations, manning stores, to moderating and facilitating workshops, these volunteers keep Camp Widow® in operation.
Soaring Spirits has a variety of online opportunities to get involved, and volunteer if interested. Visit our website and express interest in volunteering, a coordinator will respond with all the opportunities Soaring Spirits has to offer for volunteers.
The website also includes additional resources such as the Widowed Village, an online forum for widowed people similar to social network sites. In addition the Widow Pen Pal program was created, offering people an outlet for connection and correspondence with another widowed person.
Soaring Spirits partners with many great organizations that specialize in child bereavement offering financial and emotional support for widowed families.
Another organization Simple Acts of Kindness for Children of Widowers, provide grants for extracurricular activities (sports, dance, art classes etc.) that sometimes fall by the wayside for widowed families.
While Soaring Spirits does not work with the children of widowed families directly, our partners act on our behalf and do some amazing work.
Recreating your life as a widowed person takes time, energy, and determination. Maybe you have to go back to work, after being a stay-at-home parent for so long because that financial support is missing. A great number of widowed we work with are in that position, so being able to partner with organizations that do provide financial relief has been invaluable. It is important to Soaring Spirits that we provide as many possible resources to the widowed community.
Michele Neff Hernandez doesn’t like to use the phrase “moved on” when speaking about widowhood, but rather moving forward. It can be common for widowed to hesitate in this regard, moving on means to them that they’ll be leaving behind everything they loved about their old life.
Michele notes that everything a widowed person loved from their past life, or about the partner who died will belong to them always. This is a part of your history, and it cannot be erased.
That being said Michele has now been married for five years, her ability to love has only grown in that time. Michele feels strongly that once you’ve lost something so important, you no longer take for granted the precious things in your life.
Camp Widow® is unique, in that we welcome the new partners of widowed. Providing them as well with a forum to discuss what it is like to be partnered with a widowed person. Providing a place for conversation and support.
Soaring Spirits has its fair share of “love stories”. Through online forums, Camp Widow®, and many other resources, some widowed people have found relationships within our program.
It really is a beautiful full circle, dealing with bereavement, becoming re-partnered and having this community of loving relationships through Soaring Spirits.
Providing this additional support in our program is a wonderful extension of the many services we offer the widowed community.
The first thing Michele tells newly widowed people is “be gentle with yourself”, often we have such high expectations of ourselves. It’s important to realize just how much of an impact the grieving of a loss can be. No matter what you maybe doing physically, there will always be an emotional and mental struggle to deal with the fallout.
Michele always encourages widowed people to remember the physical, emotional, and astonishing toll this process has. There is no perfect way to go through widowhood!
Michele wished that she herself had a checklist saying, “do this, and you will become the perfect widow.” It took many years for Michele to realize there is no such thing, widowhood is something that cannot be managed in a convenient manner. But instead must be lived minute-by-minute.
Finding connections within a widowed community changed Michele’s life, by being willing to acknowledge her loss and seeing a way to survive and eventually thrive!
Whether it’s the Soaring Spirit community or another widowed community, Michele expresses the importance of forming connections with fellow widowed people. It will provide guidance, and form strong relationships that last a lifetime.
The Camp Widow® program runs three times a year. Soaring Spirits hosts regional social groups to help maintain the social structure that many widows lose after the death of their partner. These social groups are mainly designed to help widowed people step back out into the social arena.
Soaring Spirits offers over thirty regional social groups spread throughout the U.S. and Canada, lead by volunteer trained facilitators. Hosting activities, lunch & dinners, and community events focusing around the group’s interests. More information about regional social groups can be found on the Soaring Spirits website.
In Michele’s mind moving forward with a new partner is very similar to the experience of having two children. You’re first child, you cannot imagine loving anything more than that baby. Your entire world may seem like it revolves around this child, that there could never be another like it. But then, the second child comes and your heart’s capacity to love grows even stronger. Finding room for both of these people in your life.
When Michele’s husband died, a part of herself died with him. Michele had never imagined what it would be like to outlive her spouse. In her mind the person that existed naïve of the blessings in their life died that day. In return, reborn in her place is a much kinder, more compassionate person.
Michele felt this new person deserved a soul mate as well. In Building this new life, Michele believed the best testament to the love she shared with her late husband was to expand that same love into the world. For Michele that included finding a new partner.
Michele notes that her love for her new husband will always be impacted by the love she shared with her late husband. Loving someone and losing them was such a valuable lesson for Michele, “If you were to ask me, if I knew my husband would have died would I still have married him?” Michele without hesitating believes absolutely, yes!
The five years Michele spent with her late husband mean so much. If Michele knowing what she knows now wouldn’t trade away those five years of marriage, then she must believe the difference a new partner can make in her life.
Michele now knows the truth; the love of her relationship is strong enough for anything the future may bring.