The young woman sitting beside the older one with the carefully arranged hair accepts the cup of tea poured from the silver service. She is wondering bleakly what she is doing in this room, so full of constraint and politeness. What made her think she could reach across the gap between strangers and help?
"Sugar?" asks the older woman courteously, and she nods, searching for a way to begin. For a moment the two sip in silence, but at last the younger woman puts down her cup and turns to her hostess.
"How did your husband die?" she asks.
It is the right question, the one almost no one but another widow would dare to ask, and the dam breaks. Through her tears, the woman recounts each sad detail while her guest listens attentively. She, too, is a widow and she understands.
She also is a trained volunteer from Widowed Persons Service, operating out of Iona House, a community-service center at 4200 Butterworth Pl. NW. She, like all the volunteer aides, is a widow of at least two years. (Experts generally agree that a widowed person does not pass through the grief and the adjustment period before than.)
Widowed Persons Service is the brainchild of Pearlbea LaBier, who holds a master of social work degree from Catholic University, and Ruth Loewinsohn, program specialist of the Widowed Persons Service for the American Association of Retired Persons.
Every day at Iona House staff members search the obituary notices for Northwest area residents who have been left alone by the death of a spouse. The clipping is filed against the day, eight weeks hence, when family and friends will have returned to their own lives and left the bereaved to cope alone.
After eight weeks, an aide writes a handwritten letter to the newly widowed person telling a bit about herself and asking if she has experienced any of the difficulties common to most widows. She follows this up a day or two later with a phone call and, if the woman wants it, a personal call to lend -- not advise or counsel -- an understanding and attentive ear.
The world at large is uneasy with new grief, fearful of triggering tears and emotional breakdowns. The very fact of bereavement reminds most people of the uncomfortable idea of one's own death. Widows often get a wide berth, especially early on.
The aides are graduates of a training session that sends them out armed with the experience of experts, but they already have the unerring instinct for what to say and do which comes from knowing the territory. They too have felt the bewilderment, suffered the tangle of emotional and financial problems, the acute depression that sets in when the lights go on in the evening
Readjustment comes very gradually and they know about that, too.
"They don't walk in and pat them on the back and tell them they'll be all right in 12 months," says LaBier.
They fill a hole family and friends cannot. They understand the bias of the culture against widows, that there are houses where the new widow will never again be a guest after dark, the difficulty of getting about as a single again.
"Most of your friends are used to you as part of a team, just as you yourself were," says Loweinsohn, author of "Survival Handbook for Widows (and for Relatives and Friends Who Want to Understand)."
"Friends," says Loewinsohn, "because they don't know how to act with you, need guidelines from you. Don't suffer in silence." k
The very fact that the Iona House aide has recovered enough to think about somebody else is reassuring to the newly bereaved. They look at her and say to themselves, "If she can do it, perhaps I can too."
Every aide is a role model, but they also can offer support when asked. "Yes, you should think about getting a new dress," they agree, or, "Perhaps you should take up piano again." And they act as a bridge between the lonely and the rest of the world still ticking along as usual while the widow's small one has been shattered.
Aide Betty Leviten, for instance, specializes in going places like the Kennedy Center or a restaurant (dutch treat) with newly widowed persons to get them back into society again. Going with a sympathetic person is the first step toward going alone.
WPS would like to broaden its scope to include widowers, but so far there have no takers. One widower, dropping into Iona House for other reasons, told WPS he thought women found it easier to talk and if he were in mourning, he'd like to have a woman call. WPS took notes.
The service does not extend its operations beyond the confines of Northwest Washington, but is delighted to have people from other areas come and sit in on training sessions and take the idea back to their locale. Montgomery County now has its own WPS operating on a limited scale from Eastern Junior High School in Silver Spring. No counterpart as yet has sprung up in Virginia.