The road is filled with great surprises and beautiful stories. One of the most powerful stories was told to me at the first stop of my Hope of Christmas tour in Manchester, NH. Whitney Konz was just 26 when her 24-year-old husband was shot and killed last summer. This marks her second Christmas season without her beloved Kevin. I desire to honor Whitney & Kevin by telling their story, and by sharing how she’s found a way to survive in the midst of horrendous pain, hopefully helping someone else trapped in the prison of grief.
One of the best ways Whitney found to survive after Kevin died was to hunt for a support system. She found a non-profit organization called Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation (sslf.org). In addition to providing a national network of support for anyone grieving the loss of someone they love — with a special emphasis on those who have been widowed — SSLF offers a variety of programs, including Camp Widow (www.campwidow.org), which Whitney reluctantly signed up for.
“I didn’t know what to expect and I didn’t want to be disappointed if the other widow/ers wouldn’t know how to connect with me because my story was too tragic or too sad. Boy, was I wrong! There are a multitude of tragic and sad stories and it was the first place in eight months that I had felt normal. I didn’t cringe when someone asked me how he died, I told my story and just felt the instant love, support, and acceptance that was so difficult to get from others who just didn’t understand.”
The camp encourages people to put together a support system that is unique to each individual person and loss. “The one thing that we all have in common at Camp Widow is that we have all lost the love of our life, our future, our best friends…that one person that we thought would always be there. But within our losses we also have situations that we cannot relate to one another. For example, I cannot relate to someone who has young children, or an empty nester in certain situations. We can lean on each other for most things, but I also need someone who is childless to understand why I sometimes find myself in the middle of the baby section at Macy’s crying over the one thing we never got to have together. This support system I have built from Camp Widow has given me an outlet, a group of people who I know will be there whenever I need them, who will understand all my crazy and accept me anyway, and who will be my biggest cheerleader when I have good days.”
One of those cheerleaders is Cassie, a fellow widow Whitney met at Camp Widow. Cassie’s husband Dave died on June 4, 2011 from complications of myocarditis, a virus that attacks the heart muscle and causes inflammation. She was 35 and he was 38. Dave died just twenty days before Kevin. Cassie said there would be days after Dave died when she would feel so devastated she couldn’t find the energy to reach out to anyone. And then other times when she was convinced she needed to give her friends a break from calling on them so frequently, considering what they were going through, too. This led to a different kind of alone.
I’ve always heard the phrase, “Just do the next right thing.” So I wondered what she would do when this kind of alone would hit her…what would be her “next right thing?”
“I found that the best thing to do was to do only what felt comforting right then,” Cassie explained. “To say no to anything that didn’t feel right. To sleep, eat, and even drink in moderation (more than that always made me feel worse). To withdraw in order to build up strength again or to make plans. Making plans felt like plugging in to life and helped a lot. Having something to look forward to helped.”
She also did a lot of reading, including a lot of widow memoirs which helped her to feel less alone, as well as a lot of self-help and spirituality books. And after a while, she was finally able to read escapist stuff again, turning to an absorbing novel every single day. “In the very beginning I turned to comedy—especially comics with a dark streak. There was something comforting about a comic who could find humor in the saddest of life’s moments.” She watched endless funny movies and listened to Pandora comedy stations. “There were only certain kinds of music in the beginning that I could listen to and the rest would make things worse. Now, music in every form helps me heal. Singing in a choir especially helps. I also found that very strenuous workouts helped. It released anger and frustration and reduced anxiety. I did Crossfit for the first few months and then trained for and ran a 5K. I also find that being outdoors alone helps. The woods are very healing for me. I do a lot of healing and crying and thinking in the forest. I also see a therapist weekly.”
So how do these two young women find hope in the midst of their personal tragedy? Is it possible?
For Whitney, hope began to flicker when she remembered how she knew her husband would want her to be happy again. “I did the work and tried to find hope for him, and for his legacy. It is not easy to find something to be hopeful for when your entire world has been shattered, but when the dust settles, if you can find just one source of light, whether it be in faith, an old hobby, family, anything really…the hope will follow.”
Cassie described her search for hope to be “tricky, complicated, scary, devastating and possible,” but that she would find it in several places. “Hope is in the people who turn up when you least expect it and lighten your load when you’re suffering, who extend a hand to you when you’re drowning. Hope is in the little coincidences that bring you the people and experiences you need to move through the pain. Hope is in the strength that tragedy reveals in us, and the unique lessons it provides. Hope is there, it’s just sometimes hard to find, which makes it all the more important to really take note of if it and grasp onto it when it makes itself known.”
Whitney and Cassie have become like sisters. They talk, text, and Skype frequently. And their humor with each other is hilarious. It’s…how can I say, dark? Jokes about things only they could make fun of—like, “Oh I remember that from when I used to have a husband!” They have a bond that is strengthened by the uniqueness of their shared tragedy. Beauty from ashes.