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Widowed Seniors Share Feelings as They Heal

Loneliness brings them to the Alhambra group for friendship and lively conversation.

December 29, 2003|William Wan | Times Staff Writer

When her husband died last year, Marietta Schug tried to deal with it on her own. She confined herself to the house, labored alone in the garden and muddled her way through confusing tax forms.

After struggling by herself for several months, Schug, 79, found a support group for widowed men and women at the senior center in Alhambra. And there she realized that the death of her spouse was a puzzle best solved among friends.

When Schug joined the group, everyone gave her advice: Notify Social Security; don't sell your house the first year; join the local senior center. No one, however, had an answer for Schug's biggest problem, loneliness. So, they offered her what they could -- friendship and conversation.

The group is called GROW, which stands for Gaining Recovery of Widowhood. It meets twice a month in a gray, fluorescent-lighted room at Alhambra's Joslyn Senior Center. Sometimes the loss of a spouse dominates the discussion. Other times, loved ones -- long gone -- aren't even mentioned.

But either way, talking helps, they say, even if it's gossiping about what members consider Laura Bush's fashion faux pas.

On a recent Friday morning, the conversation wandered from topic to topic.

* Line dancing: It's the new craze among seniors.... You don't even need a partner to dance.

* TV dinners: They're good when you're cooking for just one.... There's too much salt in them.... I never believed in microwaves; real cooks don't use them.

* And Michael Jackson: He's such a character.... I'm so tired of hearing about that, I could just scream.... So, does he wear makeup?

Such talk is more than idle chitchat, said Gerald Larue, an adjunct professor of gerontology at USC. "It's important for them to have someone who will listen and understand," he said. "It eases the pain and promotes a healthier response to life."

There are 14.7 million widowed people nationwide, according to the 2000 U.S. census. Three of four are senior citizens, and eight out of 10 are women.

The women, Larue said, tend to handle their grief better than the men, who have a higher incidence of dying shortly after their spouses have died. "It may have something to do with women's ability to talk and share," he said.

The GROW group began sharing about 20 years ago. It was a way for medical students at San Gabriel Valley Medical Center to practice grief counseling, and seniors flocked to the program.

At GROW's high point, 39 people attended the meetings. But over the years, the group has lost some to senior homes, others to hospitals. Some have left to be near family. Others have left the world altogether.

Today, the group has dwindled to seven regular members. Four, like Schug, are recently bereaved and seeking comfort. Each of the other three has been a widow for more than 15 years. The pain of loss, they say, never quite disappears and, besides, you can never have too many friends. So, every other Friday, they head to the senior center to pour a cup of coffee and try to talk their loneliness away.

At a recent meeting, the women had plenty to talk about, especially when the conversation turned to "biggest pet peeves for widows."

"It's harder for women because everything's in the man's name. It's like if your husband died, you died," said Dolores Homotoff, 66, a feisty gray-haired woman whose husband, a police officer, died 12 years ago.

Schug, an avid gardener, complained about shopping. "I go to the grocery store now and I can't buy a watermelon ....I can't finish the whole thing by myself."

But the worst, everyone agreed, are the telemarketers.

"They still call and ask to speak with my husband," said Eleanore Carlson, whose spouse died 19 years ago. "I tell them he's not here right now, so they ask, 'When will he be back?'

"One time, I just got so mad I said, 'Never!' and hung up."

The sole person who didn't offer a complaint was Al Mishkin, currently the group's only male, who sat in a corner wearing a black jacket. His problem was something all the widows understood but could not solve for him. Mishkin, 90, lost his wife a year ago, and still struggles with loneliness.

"Al, you're not saying anything," one woman pointed out.

So he shared a little: Meals are the hardest parts of his day.

"We used to make our salads together," he explained later. "She liked chunky salads, and I liked mine chopped up."

Others in the group had similar stories to tell.

The other day, Schug said, she had reached down in her garden to pull a dandelion. When she came up, her eyes were full of tears.

"My husband," she explained, "used to get out of his wheelchair just to help me dig up the dandelions. You just never know what will get you thinking" about your loved one.

But the memories bring joy as well, according to the group, and talking about them helps.

"That's why I like coming," said Eleanor Swift, who lost her husband 26 years ago. "We're all in the same boat."

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