The Widow Lady: Turning Lemons into Lemonade

Comfort and Support in the Difficult Holiday Season

Dec. 2, 2011 -- The widow on the other end of Robin Craig's phone spent her days unable to get out of bed, wrapped in her dead husband's clothing as a way to stay close to him. As a fellow young widow, Craig knew the pain all too well.

Robin Craig, who calls herself "The Widow Lady," spends much of her time helping other widows. She is a native Houstonian who was married to Danny for 21 years. Six years ago, 11 days after their wedding anniversary, Danny died suddenly of undiagnosed cardiovascular and hypertensive disease. He was only 43.

"Hours before he died he flexed his big biceps and leaned over for me to feel them and I'm like, 'boy honey you're really hitting the gym you look great.' Just not a clue at all that his death would happen just hours after," she remembered.

"Once my husband died I was just thrown into this chaotic abyss with no instruction manual, no life jacket, no crash helmet and just struggling to swim out of it," she remembered.

When a spouse dies, often you lose your best friend, lover, confidant, life partner, financial manager, and household handyman.

Lonely and scared, Craig didn't know where to turn. "I kept saying, "I just don't know what I'm going to do.' I would describe it later as feeling like half of my body was gone because I used to tell my husband together we made one really great capable person," she said.

"So when he was gone I had to do the things that he did while doing the things I was always already doing. The other issue was that I had to learn what he did and how to do it," Craig recalled.

She realized she couldn't always count on friends and neighbors to help. "As everybody knows who has lost a loved one, people come around for the first week and they help you get through the funeral. You're lucky if they stay for the second week. And beyond that you're on your own," Craig said.

After two weeks of being widowed, Craig pulled herself together enough to return to work. "I would continue working for eight consecutive years on three nationally syndicated court TV shows, which included Texas Justice, Judge Alex and Cristina's Court," she recounted. Three of those years were after Danny's death.

But something would happen to Craig that had never occurred before or since. "During my second week of widowhood when I was just such in shock I had this crazy premonition where my body jolted forward and I heard my own voice saying with urgency, 'I have to help the widows,'" she said.

And she did. A year later, Craig put together a radio program in Houston that featured a grief counselor and young widower from her church. But the pain of widowhood was still too raw for her. Craig found it difficult not to cry. For the next three years she concentrated on her job as a TV producer.

By 2009 that little voice in her head that said she had to help the widows was still gnawing at her. So Craig got some business sponsors together and created "Help a Widow Day" where widows could come together, talk about their problems, and support each other. It is held each year in Houston. "I saw such a difference in their faces when they left than when they arrived," she noted.

Craig also uses social media to reach out to other widows. She writes a "Today's Widow" blog for the Houston Chronicle. And she has spoken for the last two years at "Camp Widow" in San Diego. Craig hosts a weekly web TV program on her website that offers comfort, support and encouragement to other widows and deals with topics that affect widows such as finances and dating.

Lori, the young widow from Chicago, lost her husband suddenly four months earlier. Another woman who had heard about Craig asked her to help Lori. The first time the two widows spoke the conversation lasted two hours.

"When it happens suddenly without warning it so much crazier because you don't get to say goodbye. You don't get to say how do I do certain things, where are certain things located. You don't get to talk about the funeral service or the memorial or the cremation. You don't get to find out what your loved one wants for their final wishes," Craig said.

"You're just by yourself just trying to cope and tell yourself to get out of bed every day and to remember to eat and to take care of things that you have to take care of. And this is what this woman was doing she was just surviving and just in shock and didn't know what to do with herself," Craig remembered.

The two widows have remained friends and are planning a meeting. One thing they had in common was that neither had children. "I've heard a lot of widowed people say if it weren't for my children I don't know what I would've done because they gave me a reason to get out of bed and function every day. But for those of us who don't have that it's really hard," Craig said. "There's nothing other than your own mind telling you you must get up and you must take care of things to make that happen."

Craig remembered her own most painful feelings, loneliness and insecurity. "Loneliness is the worst. That is by far the absolute worst. That's something that I hear across the board from widows and widowers alike is just the intense loneliness.

After the loneliness, widows worry about coping. "The first feeling that I remember experiencing early on was insecurity. I don't feel safe anymore, and that's very, very common," she said.

And then there is the anxiety. "Because you can't see your future and you are instantly aware that the future that you did see is gone when your spouse dies. You feel lost. You really don't know what to do with yourself," Craig said.

The approaching holiday season is especially bad for widows who haven't yet fully adjusted to their situations. "The holidays are really the worst time because the birthdays and anniversaries are difficult but those are days you just have on your own. When you have the holidays, everywhere you look there are couples together and they're holding hands and they're being affectionate with one another and they're buying gifts for each other and the holidays are about family and friends," Craig said.

"And when your family is upset and you don't have that family unit like you once did you feel very lost and very sad and that's why there are suicides that oftentimes occur in conjunction with the holidays because the sadness is just too much to handle."

There are some things friends can do to help widows. "Widows just need to be remembered. We so feel that we are forgotten. We're a forgotten part of society. And any type of recognition really works," Craig said.

"Definitely give them a call. Just being remembered means so much. And I tell everybody to please ask the widow, especially during the holidays, to be part of your celebrations."

Craig noted that widows usually won't reach out to friends for help. It works best if the friends offer the help first. For younger widows it may be an offer to babysit children. For older widows, a ride to the doctor's office or help around the house.

Craig believes helping other has also helped her. "I think that a lot of my own healing has come from giving back to others," she said. Craig believes there is a stigma attached to being a widow. "People oftentimes react to widowhood as if it is a contagious disease."

If you're married, there's a 50/50 chance you'll be widowed some day. Exact numbers of widows are hard to come by because statistical surveys usually are a few years old. It's generally believed there are almost 15 million widowed people in the United States. About 11 million are women. The reasons there are so many more widows than widowers are that men usually die sooner after widowhood and widowers are quicker to remarry.

Craig believes support groups can be very helpful for widows. "You get a really strong feeling early on that you shouldn't cry in front of people, you should cry in private. So you cry in your car, you cry in the shower, you cry yourself to bed at night," she said.

"And when you go to a support group it's a safe place where you are allowed to cry. You see others crying and you're able to share with other people and you don't feel quite so alone because you understand there are others who are in your same situation."

Six years after losing her husband, it's still hard for Craig. "It's still difficult in many ways and I often times don't really feel a part of something," she said.

"I think the hardest part for me has been making decisions on my own. A spouse is a great bounce board and a spouse is the only person who has a vested interest in every single decision you make," Craig believes. "And when you are faced with making them on your own, you question am I doing the right thing? And you just have to sometimes draw straws. You just have to trust your instincts and to go with it. But it's extremely difficult."

One thing Craig feels is very important in the healing process is for widows to do something they may have felt very apprehensive about in the past. "First of all widows have to step outside of their comfort zone to try things that they've never tried before. And we all know how powerful women are. I believe that widows are the most powerful group of women because we have had to stretch our abilities," she said.

For Craig, going outside the comfort zone meant dealing with the animals that were making a home in her attic. "I have caught six possums and four raccoons since 2010 and that's something I would never have imagined possible because I've always been afraid of insects and I would run 100 miles from a grasshopper or a cricket or a worm," she recounted.

For some widows, the idea of dating again could be akin to facing a wild animal. "The apprehension of thinking do I date again? Is there hope to find love again? Am I just stuck in this place waiting to die? That's it for me. Some people bury themselves in their careers others just focus on their children," she said.

Many widows have to find new friends. "I talk to widows all the time who say we used to go out with friends, we used to have a group that we would hang out with. And now the group doesn't invite me anymore. And what's sad is that even if you do go you don't really feel the same being part of it, you feel like a fifth wheel," Craig said.

Widows can also be exploited financially and sexually. "I tell people that you have to learn how to say no and you have to understand that it's OK to say no and to trust your instincts. If you're in someone's presence and it doesn't feel right then just simply leave. Don't let people coerce you into doing things that are uncomfortable," she warned.

Craig is not sure where she will be in 10 years. Widowhood is a journey, and those who are strong will make it through. "I tell everybody that adversity comes in a lot of forms and we don't know how it's going to come or when it's going to come but we can always turn our lemons into lemonade and that's basically what I've done with my mission to help the widows," she said.

After her husband's death, Craig went on to win three daytime Emmy Awards for her work on the Court TV programs. "When you do have intense adversity you can still prevail and you can move forward and you can be the best at whatever is accorded to you."