Ruth Laska remembers the first New Year's Eve party she attended after her husband died. At midnight, she hid in the bathroom to avoid the painful sight of kissing couples.
"Holidays," the Studio City widow said, "are just crushing. Every one used to be a big thing for us. Now I wonder how I get through each one."
Martha Sklar, 45, a Los Angeles widow, remembers feeling angry at friends who didn't think to ask about her plans for her first Thanksgiving after her husband died 11 years ago. "I wanted them to do a kind of checking," she said. "I don't need it now, but I sure did eight or 10 years ago."
Sunday afternoon, midway between the Hanukkah and Christmas celebrations they dread, these women and about 75 other guests will gather for an anniversary that holds no painful memories.
The anniversary celebration of the Center for the Widowed that Laska and others helped to found 10 years ago will include a catered dinner, speeches by center founders, a keynote address by Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, and live music from the '40s and '50s.
As usual, many widows will arrive alone at the Robert J. Green Contact Center in West Los Angeles, and most will go home to empty houses. But for a few hours, they will savor the company of the only people on earth they believe truly understand them.
A Special Group
"Widows are a group unto themselves," said Laska, who still cries for her husband 12 years after his death. "Unless you have been in the position yourself you cannot know what it is like. Widowhood is a totally different type of pain because the only person we can get angry at we cannot vent our anger on . . . we are angry at our husbands for leaving us."
Although the group is open to men, most of the participants are women, and they have much in common. Together they dread weekends and car repairs, and wonder with each other when all this pain will end. They share the names of reliable financial consultants and handymen, and exchange doubts about whether married friends really want their company, or just feel sorry for them.
In large measure, the Center for the Widowed owes its conception to Laska. Two years after her husband and mother died within two months of each other, Laska was still too depressed to get out of bed some mornings. She sought therapy with Culver City psychologist Albert Ross. It helped, she said.
"Ruth (Laska) told me about an article she had come across about a widow's center in New York. It struck me as an idea whose time had come," said Ross, whose mother outlived her husband by 30 years, but who, according to her son "died not one psychic increment closer to adjusting than she was on the day he died."
A Very Basic Idea
"It's a mental health principal that the more traumatic an event, the more beneficial it is for people to be with other people who have been through it," the psychologist continued. "Veterans have discovered that, crime victims have, and now widows."
Ross, a member of Temple Isaiah, which operates the Robert J. Green Contact Center, took the idea to Chuck Hurewitz, temple president. He liked it.
A few weeks later, Laska and others found themselves passing out questionnaires at a well-attended first meeting they had called at the Contact Center. What did the widows need, the questionnaire asked. Job help? Legal assistance? Financial assistance?
Overwhelmingly, the widows voted to establish support groups, where they could talk about their hurt and anger, and be assured of sympathetic listeners. Five professional therapists volunteered to moderate the group's sessions, and the Center for the Widowed began. As far as the organizers know, it was the first such organization exclusively for the widowed in the Los Angeles area.
Since then, many communities have started similar programs. UCLA's Self-Help Referral Center lists 14 in Los Angeles County. Officials from the Center for the Widowed said that in some cases their organization has served as a prototype.
Over the years, about 700 widows and widowers have participated in the support groups, and thousands have attended monthly Sunday afternoon information meetings which feature outside speakers, said Janet Witkin, center director from 1975 until 1983.
Cruise directors, retirement planners, physicians and others have given Sunday talks at the Center for the Widowed.
After the meetings there is cake, coffee and companionship. "The company, that's what many of them really come for," said Rabbi Aliza Berk, 33, center director.
The center is less in the limelight today than it was 10 years ago, former director Witkin said. "There was a time when we were on talk shows and radio shows, and had lots of newspaper coverage, but widowhood is not a popular subject . . . it takes a lot of energy to sustain that."
Perhaps partly as a result of the declining publicity, membership has dwindled. In the beginning, five support groups met at a time. Now, there is only one.