Felicite Macfarlane's blue eyes glazed with tears as she remembered her life before her husband's sudden death from a heart attack last spring. "I had a lot of social status as the wife of a brilliant, successful CPA certified public accountant partner," she said.
But as a widow at 38, Macfarlane found she no longer fit so snugly into the upper middle class of Potomac where she had lived comfortably with her husband. "I'm not part of that now," she said. "It's an affluent, coupled world. I came today because . . . I need to find where I am and who I am now."
Her search for answers brought her and 70 other persons to a conference on "Widowhood: Survival and Growth." They spent most of a recent Saturday discussing the loneliness and responsibilities of life without a husband or wife.
The conference, at Temple Baptist Church, 3850 Nebraska Ave. NW, was sponsored by the Iona House Community Service Center and the American Association of Retired Persons.
Members of the predominantly female audience met in small groups, exchanging stories of feeling helpless as they tried to handle money, business affairs, household repairs, driving and other matters that their spouses had managed. "I didn't file my taxes for the first three years. It was a combination of not knowing how to do it and being angry because he wasn't around to do it," one participant said.
"Widows don't have a support system," said Marina Fanning, 40, whose husband died of cancer five years ago. "There's lots of support for single and divorced people, but widowhood occurs outside the normal framework of events. There's no prep time, no way to prepare for it. One day he's dead and there you are."
Lack of a peer group makes widowhood especially difficult for younger women, said Carroll Matthews, 40, coordinator of the Young Widowed Persons Program at Iona House. The average widow, who is usually 50 or older, knows at least one other widow while younger women don't know any, said Matthews, whose husband died three years ago.
But losing a mate is difficult at any age. Because Dickie Sharp, 60, a Virginia farmer, was 10 years younger than her husband, she thought she had prepared herself for widowhood, she said during a panel discussion. But when her husband was killed in a tractor accident, Sharp found she was not ready to run a 215-acre grain farm alone.
When a repairman charged her $8,000 for what she later learned was a minor roofing job, "I just wrote the check and handed it over," Dickie said. "Nobody could've been a stupider sucker than I was."
The conference also gave some widowers an opportunity to meet each other.
Lawrence Shultz, 66, a retired electrical foreman who lost his wife two years ago, said he became a volunteer in the Widowed Persons' Service program after having difficulty finding other widowers with whom to talk.
When Shultz started looking around for a program six months after his wife's death, he found none for men and only a few for women, he said.
The Widowed Persons' Service offers group discussions for people of all ages who have lost a mate. There also are WPS volunteers, such as Shultz, who are available to talk to other widows and widowers about their feelings long after friends and relatives have grown weary or intolerant of the subject, said Pealbea LaBier, conference coordinator.
Fanning, one of the WPS volunteers, summed up widowhood for many people when she told a group that it's like having a limb amputated: "You still have the sensation that the arm or leg is still there."