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Group Guides Widowed in Transition

June 03, 1993|ROBYN LOEWENTHAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"My human sexuality did not die when I buried my husband six years ago. The issue became how to meet my private needs in a new and devastatingly difficult lifestyle after nearly 50 years of marriage."

--Ann Michalski, 69, Widowed Persons Service board member and conference panel organizer

No one is ever truly prepared for the shock of losing a spouse. And our culture tends to treat widowhood as a secret, embarrassing state of limbo instead of an inevitable life transition.

But during the past three decades, enlightened researchers have been devoting attention to guiding people through the practical and emotional stages of grief and recovery.

Widowed Persons Service (WPS) was established nationally in 1973 by the American Assn. of Retired Persons as an outreach program in which trained widowed volunteers offer support to the newly widowed. "There are no dues and nothing to join. And there really isn't a road map. Grief is an intensely individual thing," said Jim Wells, local WPS president. At the core of the program, he added, is the friendly ear of someone who knows what a widowed person is going through.

In addition, WPS volunteers work with local funeral homes, and mental health and social service agencies to help the newly bereaved cope with changes in housing, family relationships, social life and unfamiliar legal and financial matters.

Despite the growing number of bereavement support groups, courses and self-help books on widowhood, sexuality remains an awkward subject for many.

Nevertheless, participants at the annual conference of the Widowed Persons Services of Ventura County, held recently in Camarillo, got an earful on the topic as four panelists discussed "Human Sexuality Keeps on Ticking," and offered poignant and practical observations.

A common complaint of many newly bereaved women is being propositioned. Many also complained they lost couples as friends soon after the obligatory phone calls offering condolence.

"Wives don't want you around because you're seen as the widow who needs servicing," said Felice Ginsberg, 55, a panel member.

"Most of the women of my generation were housewives," said Ann Michalski, 69, a WPS board member and conference panel organizer. "They generally married young and their husband was the only man in their life from the time they were high school sweethearts. These are the women who are now being widowed."

"When my husband died 13 months ago, I had no idea that the sex would go away, too," said Gayel Childress, 53, an Ojai artist and panelist. "It was as if someone had taken away water. I always had sex at hand and I never thought about it. My body was thirsty, but I didn't want sex." It was her need for human contact.

Childress acknowledged the common fear of dating and becoming intimate with a new partner. "I'm dating and it's scary," she said. "But it's exciting, too, and I'm looking forward to a new life."

The sudden absence of human contact was also a problem for Ginsberg, who said she has remained celibate since her husband's death six years ago.

"I am a very physical person and my husband was very affectionate," she said. "I was vulnerable and realized I could get into a lot of trouble because what I missed was being touched. So I decided to get a massage on a regular basis."

After her husband died, she realized she had sublimated energies for years to the needs of her spouse and children. "All of a sudden I had to focus on me and what I was going to do with the rest of my life. My sexuality is based on substitution and sublimation. Hugging is very important. So is self-esteem and loving yourself first," added Ginsberg said.

In supporting celibacy, Brother Hugo Stippler, 70, chief executive officer of St. Joseph Convalescent Hospital in Ojai and WPS treasurer, suggested redirecting the loving energy previously lavished on a spouse to charitable activities.

Michalski said the loss of a spouse tends to raise doubts about self-worth and identity, especially among older women. "It's never going to be the same," she said. "But continue to love with passion and joy. Move on and start life. The flip side of loss and grief is freedom to do whatever I damn well please.

"We never outgrow the need to be intimate--to give and get pleasure," Michalski said.

FYI

To become a Widowed Persons Service volunteer or for assistance, call Jim Wells, director of family services at Ted Mayr Funeral Home in Ventura, 643-9977. A course entitled "Preparation for Widowhood" will be offered this fall by the Ventura adult education program. For details, call 641-5200. "On Being Alone: Guide for Widowed Persons," is a free 14-page booklet available from the Widowed Persons Service, AARP, 1909 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20049.

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