The W Connection: Support for Widows by Widows

With the economy still not recovered, federally funded social service agencies and hospital and hospice-based bereavement groups for widows are becoming an endangered species.
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Dawn Nargi, a New Yorker, lost her husband, Norman Ferren, just two months after she gave birth to their son William. Dawn is one of 11 million widows in America today. There will be 1 million more by the end of 2012. Their average age is 55. She is one of 374,000 American widows under 45 years old.

As Dawn exemplifies, widowhood has no respect for age. Any wife at any age can become a widow, sometimes without warning, sometimes over long periods of time in the case of protracted illness.

It is true, though, that after age 55 the numbers increase dramatically. Thanks to that ever-influential baby boomer phenomenon, the projections for the future are pretty sad, since there are currently 26 million married women in the U.S. between the ages of 45 and 65.

For this generation -- for whom the term "women's issues" had meant equal opportunity to employment, education, health care, reproductive rights and other basic needs that might have been threatened simply by the fact of their gender -- now widowhood will be added to this list.

When she lost her husband, Dawn herself was at a loss. Who to turn to? Who would understand? Who would help her through the maze of questions she had, from the deeply personal to the very practical? As it turned out, she found very few social service agencies that could help; and what information she did find was dispersed among several resources. It was this frustrating experience that motivated her and Ellen Kamp, a former colleague at Morgan Stanley, where Dawn is an IT vice president, to establish the W Connection. The W Connection calls itself "a one-stop Internet-based resource center and a national network of community-based organizations run by widows." It "recruits widows who are passionate about helping other widows with the healing process and provides them with the training and tools to form local chapters."

With the economy still not recovered, federally funded social service agencies and hospital and hospice-based bereavement groups for widows are becoming an endangered species. So it behooves individuals and charitable grant-giving organizations to support the W Connection and others trying to fill in the gap as best they can. Without such funding, the W Connection itself may die and that would be unfortunate indeed.

I interviewed Dawn for a "Preoccupations" column that appeared in the New York Times on April 29, 2012. Here is what she said:

I've always handled stress well. Any job would bore me if it didn't have an element of stress. Part of my coping secret is I compartmentalize. So when I'm at work, I'm 100 percent at work. When I'm mothering, I'm 100 percent Mommy.

In my line of work, this comes in handy. As an IT vice president, I oversee key technology systems development in the human resources department at the Manhattan headquarters of Morgan Stanley, one of the world's largest diversified financial services firms.

What I like about technology is that if a glitch develops, I can identify the problem and fix it. Even if it's 1 in the morning, I get up -- because there are people literally on the other side of the world waiting for me -- and fix it. Then they're back online, and I go back to sleep.

When my husband Norman Ferren was diagnosed with cancer in January 2008, my first thought was, 'We'll fix it, then we'll be back online in a blink.' At the time our son William, who had been born two months prematurely, was a month old.

Two months later Norm lost his battle with cancer. Suddenly an only parent, I was left to live a life for two that had been meant for three. And I still had a very demanding job.

Missing him will never go away, but by compartmentalizing and designing my own life operating system, I am adjusting -- thriving at work and being a good mommy, but not without the help of my parents, some old and some newfound friends, and my employer.

Morgan Stanley offered a hand in a few ways to help me jump-start my adjustment to widowhood. Through its Employee Assistance Program, I had three free counseling sessions with a mental health therapist approved by the firm. I used its back-up care program, which made emergency childcare available for a small co-payment. Employees can log in remotely from anywhere; for me that means I can work from my desk at home before William wakes up and after he goes to sleep.

Through Norm's short illness and death, my co-workers were especially sympathetic to my situation. My boss at the time was very generous in extending my pregnancy leave into a mourning period.

For many months, I moved through life in a fog. But because I would arrive at the office in that 100 percent worker mode, people would say, 'You seem to be doing so well.' I'd think, 'They don't know how devastated I am.' I was angry all the time -- mostly at the Universe for taking my husband. I probably was not the most convivial colleague.

I was moved by how many work friends came to Norm's funeral. One of them was Ellen Kamp, whose husband had died a year earlier. She had been a work mentor; now she became a mentor in how to be a widow, though she would likely say we teach each other.

Over the months our work relationship evolved into a mutually supportive friendship. We recognized that while friends, family and colleagues try to be empathic, only women who have lost a husband truly understand what you're going through.

That was the impetus behind the W Connection, a nonprofit organization Ellen and I co-founded in 2009. Now the W Connection has branches in Manhattan and on Long Island; our newly updated website is a one-stop resource center for widows. Morgan Stanley gave us $2,500 last year through an incentive program that grants funds to volunteer programs with which employees are involved.

Ellen has since retired from Morgan Stanley, and while the W Connection takes up a chunk of my off-work time, I find that helping other women navigate widowhood's emotional roller coaster gives the loss of Norman some purpose and meaning to me.

There are two great loves that have helped me stand on my own. One is William. He has no idea what a stabilizing force he is, a reason to get on with it. The other is Canyon, the big yellow handsome mutt that Norm and I adored. Every day Canyon, William and I now stop by a Central Park memorial bench with a plague in Norm's name that friends and family sponsored.

You're told not to make big changes for at least a year after your spouse dies. In my work cubicle I keep the same photo of Norm, Canyon and me that I've had there for six years. We look happy hiking in western Connecticut. I do get sad when I look at it, but in the middle of another stressful day it reminds me I can cope with any glitch work, or life, throw at me. Then I look at a photo beside it of William and I'm emotionally back online.

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