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SANDY BANKS / Life as We Live It

In a Refuge for Survivors, No One Is Ever 'the Only One'

October 19, 1998|SANDY BANKS

To outsiders, we must seem a rather unlikely trio, hunched over a table in the middle of a crowded restaurant.

Jeannie McBride's the blond with the dazzling smile, a comedian, someone who earns her living making people laugh. Kim Margolin is petite, intense--an oncologist dedicated to saving lives. And I'm the frazzled-looking woman hanging on their every word.

We slide, in moments, from knee-slapping laughter to heartbreaking tears as our conversation shifts from the foibles of a new romance to the memory of a husband's last breath.

We call ourselves the Merry Widows . . . reflecting not just the bond we share but our determination to snatch happiness from the jaws of grief.


It is, without a doubt, the hardest thing I've ever had to do--telling my oldest daughter, then 8, that her father had died.

She'd been at a Christmas party next door when police showed up at our house with the news. When I brought her home later that night, I was prepared for tears, anger, disbelief. But not for the first words out of her mouth.

"I'll . . . be . . . the only . . . one"--the words came between huge, choking sobs--"the only one in third grade without a father."

I wondered at it then; I understand it now . . . this primitive, elemental fear of being different, set apart, an object of curiosity among uncomprehending friends.

I wish I'd known then about Our House in West L.A., where kids like mine can find relief from being "the only ones," where children grieving the loss of a parent can draw comfort from others who understand the pain.

It's not therapy exactly. There are no probing questions, no struggles to figure out what it all means. There are just groups of children who meet to talk, tell stories, cry . . . and in the process, help each other navigate the shifting terrain of fear, anger, guilt and pain.

It's one place where they don't have to hide or pretend, to dodge thoughtless questions or the pity of well-meaning friends.

Where it's OK to be angry because Mommy won't take you to Little League since Daddy died and can't coach anymore, or embarrassed because Dad sewed your Brownie badges on wrong and some kid with a mother laughed.


It took me years to accept what my daughter understood that first night . . . how suffering such an uncommon loss would make me feel out of step, alone. And it wasn't until I met Kim and Jeannie that I felt that burden begin to lift.

They'd met through an Our House group for young widows and widowers. They brought me into their circle after our paths crossed at my children's school, and they taught me through example that survival is not enough of a goal, that life still can be lived with gusto and pride.

When I met them, it felt as if I'd spent the years since my husband's death wandering through a foreign land and finally had found someone who spoke my language, who understood the range of emotions that recovery from grief was taking me through.

I could feel bitter without feeling ashamed, worry about my kids without being afraid, share my hopes for a new romance without feeling guilty. I learned that hope and confidence can coexist with anger and pain.

Now we meet for dinner whenever we can, for the most cleansing few hours we are likely to spend until we can see one another again. I wish every widow, and every child whose parent has died, could have such partners to walk them through the fog of grief.

That's why I'm proud to be the recipient of Our House's first ever HUG Award (Helping Understand Grief), to be presented at the group's fund-raising dinner Wednesday night. The group has helped heal hundreds of families disrupted by death and now has launched an outreach program to send teams of counselors into schools to run support groups for students in pain.

If you know of someone who needs the group's help, don't hesitate to call. There are support groups for adults and children of all ages.

And if you can support the wonderful work they do, buy a ticket to the dinner and spend Wednesday night with us. It'll be more fun than you might think. It's not about death, after all, but life.

Our House can be reached at (310) 475-0299.

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