By Destany Fuller | WeINSPIRE Journalist
SAN MARCOS, Texas – What started as a tragic experience full of loss and grief has become a beacon of light and connection for widowed people all over the world. Michele Neff Hernandez’s life changed forever in 2005 when her husband Philip was hit and killed while on his evening bike ride.
Such a major loss led her to search for connections with other widowed people who had experienced her pain at one point or another. In 2008, after years of building connections with people in a similar position, she founded Soaring Spirits, a non-profit, international grief network that connects widowed people with one another.
Neff Hernandez said that reaching out to others served her need for connection after the sudden loss of her husband.
“We all have to recognize that each one of us has a different type of personality, and for each one of us, different things will serve that need,” Neff Hernandez said.
She also shared her opinion that widows should take as much time for themselves as they need when grieving the loss of a spouse or partner.
“Anyone who’s grieving: you absolutely have to be selfish,” she said. “You have to be able to make the space for your feelings to find your personal ways of expressing the pain you’re living with.”
Shortly after her husband’s death, Neff Hernandez found a special connection with a woman named Michelle Dippel, who became widowed two months after her. She emphasized the impact that each of them had on each other after being introduced.
“We walked through everything together,” Neff Hernandez said. “First anniversaries, the first wedding anniversary, their birthdays. What we offered each other was a safe space to just be however we were. We would literally talk every single day, and that was a way of processing.”
After realizing how large of an impact their relationship had on each other, Neff Hernandez and Dippel discussed the possibility of developing a community where multiple widows could also experience a connection like theirs.
From that point, Soaring Spirits was born. The organization has multiple programs both online and in-person which any widow can use regardless of how long it’s been since the loss of their partner. These programs include pen-pals, online forums and social meet-ups. One of the star attractions of the organization is its retreat experience called Camp Widow.
The founder and CEO shared the successful response that she’s received from participants over time.
“When I first started planning Camp Widow… I didn’t know what would happen,” Neff Hernandez explained. “I knew… it would be valuable for [people] to come together; I knew they would walk away with tools and resources. I wasn’t sure if they’d want to come back. Turns out they love coming back.”
Camp Widow is a conference that not only gives widows a sense of community among people with shared experiences but also the tools necessary to continue on with their lives without their partners. The camp has been running for 14 years with a 40% retention rate among all events.
Neff Hernandez said that Camp Widow serves as a model to help participants not only understand their grief but to continue to live their lives in the best way possible despite it.
“They don’t have to get over it,” she emphasized. “They don’t have to pretend that their widowhood never happened to them. Instead, they build a life that includes what’s happened to them in order to have access to all the tools that help them survive it.”
Looking back, the CEO said she never imagined that efforts with the camp would become this successful.
“Our very first camp, I had to personally sign all the paperwork and be liable financially because the organization didn’t exist yet,” she said. “After the first one, I just thought, ‘I’d like to do that again.’ We just finished our 32nd camp… you feel like it has a life of its own; the idea really was born in my head, and it looked very much how it looks today.”
Though Neff Hernandez is now remarried, she shared that she will always love and miss her husband Phil. She advised audiences not to allow their grief to keep them from having a full and happy life.
“The truth about grief is that it will always be a part of your life… but it doesn’t need to keep you from having a full and happy life,” she said. “Happiness and sadness sit beside each other all the time; it happens every day.”
Those who have experienced the loss of a partner or spouse and are interested in becoming involved with Soaring Spirits should visit their website for more information. Neff Hernandez has also published a book about digesting grief that can be found here.