In the weeks after Angelique Jespersen’s husband died from cancer in 2007, her family received a lot of support from the community. Friends, co-workers and members of her church all tried to help — sending flowers, bringing food and offering to do whatever she needed. As time passed, however, her community began to move on, and that support faded.
But for Jespersen, it felt impossible to move on. The Lakeville resident and mother of two struggled to cope. She didn’t want to impose on her friends, and she didn’t know where to look for help. In fact, she didn’t even know exactly what she and her family needed.
That’s the gap that a fledgling organization called Widow’s Hope is aiming to fill — the space between when community support dwindles and when grieving families are able to return to some semblance of normalcy.
“There are so many pieces to life. It’s not just one thing,” said Jespersen, who became involved with Widow’s Hope as a volunteer a year ago. “It’s a place you can go where you can feel safe, sharing where you’re at in life at the moment. There won’t be judgments or criticisms.”
Widow’s Hope is meant to serve as a hub for grieving families, a place they can go for everything from advice from other people who’ve been through the same experience to assistance finding a job.
“We need to make it simple, kind of a one-stop shop. We’re just a connective tissue within the community,” said Michele De Santis, who founded Widow’s Hope after losing her own husband in 2010. “You cannot think straight oftentimes for the first year or two.”
The grieving spouses who reach out to Widow’s Hope are often still a little disoriented about what they need and what they have to offer. De Santis said she regularly talks to people who are looking to volunteer only to realize mid-conversation that they need support services themselves.
Widow’s Hope, based in Golden Valley, opened its doors two years ago. They have about 30 volunteers, and so far they’ve helped more than 400 people. Despite their name, Widow’s Hope works with both men and women who’ve lost a spouse. But so far, De Santis says that it is women who lean on their services most. More than 90 percent of the people they currently help are women.
De Santis, who has a degree in counseling, was inspired to start the organization because she struggled to find helpful support after her husband was killed when he was hit by a car while biking. After he died, she joined a grief group, but she didn’t feel like the people in it understood her situation. They had experienced all kinds of grief, and the group spent only two weeks discussing losing a spouse.
Jespersen’s family also had trouble finding resources that fit their needs. They joined a support group through their Lakeville church, but it covered everything from divorce to grief, and her family didn’t really identify with the other members. Although Jespersen briefly sent her daughter to therapy, she put an end to it after the therapist said it was a waste of money because her daughter wouldn’t talk.
“My children would tell me all the time, ‘I don’t want to go. I don’t want to talk about it,’ ” Jespersen said.
The challenges facing widows and widowers can be pretty specific, said psychologist and grief counselor Jim Baldus. Connecting with people who also have lost a spouse is especially important.
“You have your dreams together. You have your future. You’ve got plans,” said Baldus, who lost his first wife more than 15 years ago. When a spouse dies, “suddenly you’re all alone and you lose that sense of dreams, where you’re going.”
When people reach out to Widow’s Hope for emotional support, they are paired with another member who’s been through a similar trauma but is further along in their grieving process. A person who lost a spouse in a sudden accident will be paired with a mourning companion who also lost a spouse suddenly, and someone whose spouse committed suicide gets to meet another person who has struggled with the same challenges.
One of the reasons losing a spouse is unlike other kinds of grief is because aside from the emotional toll, it can have huge practical implications for families. Jespersen’s husband, for example, was the primary earner for her family. Although she worked, her job as a special education paraprofessional in the Lakeville schools didn’t pay enough to support herself, much less her whole family. After her husband passed away seven years ago, she had to come up with a new financial plan for her family. She moved into a new home, went back to school, and started a new career.
Widow’s Hope helps people in Jespersen’s position get back on their feet. Volunteers — who are largely widows and widowers themselves — help them write resumes, apply for jobs and find financial assistance.
Widow’s Hope tries to connect families with specific needs to help from individuals or groups in the community. Earlier this year, Widow’s Hope was contacted by a woman whose husband passed away when he was in the midst of remodeling their home. The group helped connect her with a local contractor to finish the repairs.
When Jespersen’s daughter, who’s an avid equestrian, asked to go to riding camp, Jespersen knew she couldn’t afford the expense. Through Widow’s Hope, she found a grant to help pay for the program.
For two years, Widow’s Hope has been helping people who lost a spouse connect with each other. But they still see a gap for grieving families. This year, Widow’s Hope will begin offering the same service for grieving children through the Safe Haven Center, which will host twice-monthly therapeutic gatherings. Maybe the young people will talk with each other, De Santis said. But even for children who are too shy to open up, it will be good to see that they’re not alone. Jespersen’s daughter, who spent years keeping her grief private, has already volunteered to help with the therapeutic miniature horses De Santis plans to bring for a visit.
More information on Widow’s Hope can be found on their website, www.widowshope.org.
Dylan Peers McCoy is a Twin Cities-based freelancer writer.