“We hiked. We biked. We ran. We just had such a good time together,” Neff Hernandez said.
But everything changed on a late August evening when Phillip went for a bike ride and was hit by a car and killed.
“I didn’t even know what to do with myself,” Neff Hernandez said. “Every single thing about my life changed, from where I slept, to where I ate … to who was I going to check in with if I had a flat tire.”
While she had a great support system to help her during the difficult time, she said none of them knew how to handle her grief.
“They meant well but couldn’t understand what I was going through.”
Neff Hernandez realized she wanted real-world stories of how other widows dealt with this new reality, so she started seeking out and learning from them.
“Every time I sat down with one of these people, I felt understood,” she said. “I thought if I could bring these widows together, what a difference that would make.”
“I just wanted a space where I could laugh and be free and not be judged,” Neff Hernandez said. “And if I could make it easier for widowed people to find each other, they find a friend who’s going to walk through their widowed experience with them.”
Camp Widow was the first program she created in 2008. The annual three-day events gather widows and widowers from around the world to attend workshops, meet one another and find connections.
From Camp Widow, the non-profit has grown to also include 70 regional chapters all over the US, as well as pen pals and programs specifically for the LGBTQ community.
To date, the organization has reached more than 4 million people worldwide.
“It’s about helping widowed people live life in community with each other, so that someone who has borne witness to their pain also bears witness to their life as they continue making their way forward,” Neff Hernandez said.
Most recently, the organization added a virtual program for those who’ve lost a partner to Covid-19. The 24-week program creates a space for participants to be open about their unique struggles, such as not being able to say goodbye, not having a funeral and being isolated while grieving.
“It was such a powerful moment the first time they came together and understood that everybody could safely express whatever their Covid experience was,” she said.
For Hernandez, while this work can be challenging and stir up her own grief, it’s also very rewarding.
“That gap that existed after he died, that exists to this day, is what fueled the desire to create an organization that’s serving around the world,” she said. “It’s been an incredible experience to build an organization that is in large part because he loved me so well.”
CNN’s Meg Dunn spoke with Hernandez about her work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
CNN: How did the idea of Soaring Spirits come to be?
Michele Neff Hernandez: I was grieving this person who was a pivotal part of my life. And I didn’t know how to do that. I felt like I had to find other people who knew what I didn’t know.
We don’t think about widowhood as something to search a role model for. We don’t think, “I’m living this difficult experience; I should look for someone else who’s done it and kind of seek inspiration there.” And after about a year of connecting with widowed people, all I wanted to do was put them in the same room. I learned so much from them. And I felt for the first time, hopeful. Hopeful in a way that was tangible. Hopeful in a way that made surviving seem not only possible, but that even thriving might be possible. I thought if I could make it easier for widowed people to find each other, what a difference would that make. I’m the person to help them find their person.
CNN: What’s the inspiration behind Camp Widow?
Hernandez: I also wanted to give people an opportunity to celebrate life, because when you’re widowed, if you’re grieving at all, oftentimes feeling happy in any way feels like a disgrace. And Camp Widow is a weekend event that creates a home for anybody who’s had this experience. We can celebrate each other. We can celebrate us. We can celebrate our loved ones. And so the purpose of it is to help widowed people rebuild their lives.
CNN: Are there requirements for who can or cannot participate in Soaring Spirits?
Hernandez: Soaring Spirits uses a broad definition of the word “widow.” We include all genders, all types of relationships. The only requirement is that your person — the one you thought you were going to spend your life with — has died.
I remember the first time I spoke to a widower on the phone. I realized he had been looking for a group that would let him in. And I could not imagine having someone whose heart had been broken the way mine had standing outside of a room where other people were getting help and knowing that they couldn’t go in. From that day forward, inclusivity has been one of the key values of Soaring Spirits, because nobody who’s had their heart broken in that way should be left standing outside a door looking in the window wishing they could come in.
CNN: What is your hope for the widowed people you’re helping?
Hernandez: My hope for every single widowed person who interacts with Soaring Spirits is that they walk away knowing that there’s a community there willing to walk with them through all the days ahead. It’s about being in community so that we can model for each other the possibility available to us, while also recognizing how hard it is.
It’s not all about, “Put that aside. You can’t have any hard feelings.” It’s not about, you know, “Grief is going to be something that changes you into a better person.” It’s about, “We accept you right where you are. We also believe in a future for you. And if you can’t believe in a future for yourself, that’s OK. I’ll believe in it for you until you can believe in it for yourself. And I’m going to keep believing it for you no matter how long it takes you to get there.”