Audrey Markham remembers the shock of her husband's death in a plane crash 11 years ago.
"I suddenly found myself in the most unbelievable turmoil of my life. I had never even thought about being widowed," she said.
Along with the paralyzing pain of grieving came alienation from friends and family, and endless questions about finances, she recalled. Six lawsuits later, Markham made a vow: "I said if I ever had the time and money, I was going to do something to help widows."
In February 1983 Markham started a "Widowed Persons Service" that reaches more than 500 people a month across Northern Virginia. Without an office or a paycheck, she responds to a 24-hour "warm line" telephone answering service, personally leads a weekly "walk and talk" along the Washington and Old Dominion path in Reston, and travels by car across Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and the District of Columbia organizing new widowed persons' services.
In the District, Markham has helped a nine-year-old program at Iona House grow to serve 200 widows.
Markham's strong commitment stems in part from anger at what she sees as discrimination and the "taking advantage" of vulnerable people. "We make people very uncomfortable," she said. "People avoid widows and widowers because it's a coupled society. They don't know how to act. They're afraid we're going to cry."
Each year, 1.2 million U.S. citizens become widowed, Markham said. She expressed concern about the type of help widows are getting. "The first thing that happens when your husband dies is that someone brings you a bottle of pills. And when in your life have you ever required a clearer mind than the few weeks after" a spouse's death?
In setting up her service, Markham sought 30 people who had been widowed one year or more to be trained in how to help newly widowed spouses. The response to a news release announcing the first training session, however, was an "overwhelming" 350. She learned recently widowed people offer a unique sensitivity and view involvement as a much-needed outlet.
Today, the Northern Virginia Widowed Persons Service is the largest in the country that operates under the umbrella of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). Although the AARP offers no financial assistance, it does maintain a nationwide directory of programs and provides manuals for volunteer training sessions.
Almost 200 volunteers in Fairfax and Arlington counties now offer a variety of services including one-on-one encouragement, monthly meetings for support and learning, morning "walk and talks," luncheons, brunches ("because Sunday is the loneliest day"), game nights with pot luck suppers, and a new program for bereaved children.
Two professional counselors are available for "serious problems" such as potential suicide, she said.
The all-volunteer organization has no funding except small donations, but they are seeking office space and access to a computer to manage the growing demand for service, Markham said. Three organizations that helped get the program off the ground are the Women's Club of McLean, the Fairfax YWCA and SHARE, a coalition of 17 churches.
The first contact many people have with the service is through a letter that volunteers send to spouses listed in the obituary pages of the newspaper. "Recently I learned of the loss of your wife and want you to know that I am sorry," the form letter says. "I, too, am a widow and would like to tell you about an organization that has meant a great deal to me and other widowed persons in this area."
The letter is also sent to many grieving husbands, who are even more at risk because they traditionally do not deal as well with emotional issues, according to AARP. About a tenth of those participating in the Widowed Persons Service are men.
The Widowed Persons Service newsletter that goes to 800 people in the region boasts a realistic, but optimistic, approach: "Losing your mate brings: A time of pain, a time of growth. A time of loneliness, a time of discovering a new identity. A time of difficulty, a time of challenge. Turn the page and start rebuilding your lives . . . . "
Markham recommends that every spouse become knowledgeable about family finances and also "be active and involved with your own activities." Practical knowledge and self-confidence are the most important ingredients to overcoming grief, she said.
"There's a new generation of women in careers who take care of their own finances who won't have as much trouble," she said. "I think there's going to be an improvement in how widows take care of themselves."
But Markham said that no one can ever truly be prepared for the loss of a loved one -- financially or emotionally. "Unless you've gone through it yourself, you never really understand," she said.
Widowed Persons Services are now operating in the following metropolitan Washington locations: the District of Columbia (202) 966-1055, Northern Virginia (703) 560-1115, Loudoun County (703) 777-0757, Prince George's County (301) 735-0838, and Montgomery County (301) 949-7398.