How Philly widows use haiku to overcome their grief

Group members Mary Elizabeth Pfeil (center) and Tobie Schupack at a gathering. Schupack, who lost her husband of 35 years in 2011, says the writing has helped her move forward.

For six years, Susan Gross has run a widows' group that focuses on a landscape of life issues - loss, resilience, finances, careers.

And now on something new: haiku, the traditional Japanese form of poetry defined by its three-line, 17-syllable structure.

Did I mention this

I just became a widow

Wow! my husband died

 

Gross wrote that one. Others in the group have collectively written many more.

It's a way for women in the Philadelphia-area W Connection to speak directly and creatively about their lives and their challenges. And to do so in a form that offers confinement and freedom, requiring a first line of five syllables, followed by a line of seven, concluding with a line of five.

In a nation where the number of widows is growing, currently about 11 million, the women's stories are universal - and every one unique.

The day after Bebe Netter Schwartz lost her father, her husband of 40 years awoke at 5 a.m.

"I'm having a heart attack," he told her.

Stacey L. Schwartz died 17 days later, age 61. Three weeks after that, Bebe walked into W Connection's monthly meeting at Rodeph Shalom synagogue on North Broad Street.

That was 2013. She hasn't stopped going.

It's not that her family didn't love or support her, Schwartz said. They did. But the women in the group knew exactly what she was going through, because they had gone through it themselves.

An epiphany

My reflection I will see

Not project on you

 

"It felt so good to put the pen to paper," said Schwartz, 66, a former fitness instructor who lives near Whitemarsh. "'When I look, I'll see my reflection.' Let me find my peace and my happiness. I don't want you to have to do that for me."

She wasn't embarrassed to try writing poetry, she said. And she doesn't mind who reads it, whether that audience is one or one thousand.

For now, the haikus are shared only within the group. But Gross may explore having them read on stage or even produced as a work of art on widowhood.

She started the local chapter of W Connection in 2010, after the death of her husband, Alan. It's not a counseling service. It's a place for widows to share thoughts, fears, plans, and dreams, and most of all to find encouragement and advice as they figure out how to go forward.

In the U.S., 35 percent of women 65 and over are widows, according to the federal Department of Health and Human Services. Projections show 75 percent of all women will be widowed at least once.

At W Connection, Gross, 73, a former Philadelphia schoolteacher who lives in Cheltenham, was seeking a way to get the members to write, to examine their feelings and futures on the page. Maybe they could keep a journal? Or sketch stories?

"Nobody wanted to do it," she said.

She pressed. They found haiku. It took off.

"There's so many things you can say in so few words, that take you to the core of everything," Gross said. "People were saying things they wouldn't normally say. It opened them up."

In the last few years the chapter has grown from 15 to more than 20 women, while the national organization expanded to 10 chapters.

The group was started in New York in 2010 by two women, Ellen Kamp and Dawn Nargi, who had been suddenly widowed, and wanted to provide for others what didn't exist for them: A place for widows to find information and backing to help them rebuild their lives.

Let me go I said

To the voice holding me back

Damn, that voice was me

 

Tobie Schupack lost her husband of 35 years in 2011. Thomas had chronic health problems, but he was lively and funny and there was no sign that his death was imminent.

She knows he would have told her to go forward in life. Writing that haiku helped Schupack push back against internal voices of self-doubt - and remember to ignore them next time.

"I thought about, what am I feeling right now, what have I been going through, what have I been struggling with?" she said. "Widowhood is always with you. The last thing he would have wanted was for me to get stuck in it."

jgammage@phillynews.com

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@JeffGammage