Phillip & Michele Hernandez

What's Worse: Losing Your Partner to a Long Term Illness or to a Sudden Death?

Healing Through Loss is a bi-monthly feature on Your Turn To Care. Guest columnist Michele Neff Hernandez provides insights into the process of healing after losing a loved one.


Widowed people are a huge part of my everyday life, both professionally and personally. I am the Executive Director of the Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation, we create and maintain innovative peer-based support programs for widowed people around the world. This means that I work with widowed people, many of my best friends are widowed, and I am introduced regularly to people from all walks of life that have experienced the death of a spouse or life partner. Every widowed person I have ever met has one thing in common, regardless of how they became widowed: they have to figure out what to do with their lives once their world has been turned upside down by death.

Why do I spend so much time with widowed people? Because I am one. My 39 year old husband was hit and killed by a car while he was out for his evening bicycle ride on August 31st, 2005. Even seven years later, typing those words still hurts. The world lost an amazing man that day, and I lost the future Phil and I planned. I was 35. The only vision of a widow I could conjure up was of my great Aunt Mary or my grandmother Jayne. I didn't know how to be a widow, and I didn't want to learn. But no one asked me.

In the early days after Phil's death, I wanted desperately to figure out what widows were supposed to do. If I had to be a widow, then I determined to be the best widow I could be. If there was a right way to do things, one that would honor Phil and our love, then I wanted to check every box on the 'Perfect Widow' checklist. To be honest, I can still feel that burning desire when I return to that time in my mind. But the last seven years have taught me that perfection and grief are antonyms. There is no perfect way to grieve; there is just your own way to grieve.

Seeking the answer to the question what does a widow do, compelled me to find other widowed people. I asked them if they slept in the same bed as they did when their spouse was alive, and if they slept on their own side or their spouse's side. I wanted to know how long they wore their wedding ring. Phil owned over 30 pairs of shoes, I asked people I met what they did with their partner's favorite items...did they donate them, give them to friends and family, or save them in a closet because they couldn't let go? The more time I spent with other people who understood the pain of losing the person they planned to spend the rest of their life with, the more I realized how much we had in common, regardless of how we lost our loved ones, where we lived, how much money we made, or any of the other factors that might impact relating to someone new. Speaking to other widowed people helped me realized that there were as many perfect ways to grieve as there were people who grieve.

Among people who have lost a life partner, the question of whether losing their loved one to a long term illness or a sudden death is often discussed. The general conversation about the difference between saying good bye over a period of time and waking up to find out that your loved one is dead goes like this: when you experience an expected death you have time to say everything you could want to say to your love before they die (I realize that this is not always true), while those who have been met by a police officer at their door delivering news of an accident do not. Another difference, those whose loved ones die unexpectedly don't have to watch their spouse struggle through painful treatments, the ups and downs of the course a disease may take, and the slow wasting away of strength and determination over time but wrapping your head around the fact that your healthy, strong husband or wife is dead when five minutes ago they were kissing you good-bye in the kitchen is mind blowing.

Maybe you will state with me the obvious; both situations break your heart. In my experience, each group has a good deal of empathy for the other, and the circular discussion of which survivor has the harder course ahead has no answer. Because no matter how much time you were given with the person you love, it wasn't enough. No matter how they died, there is still the desire for one more hug, one more chance to breath in their unique scent, and one more time to speak words of love.

A very good friend of mine lost her husband to ALS nine years ago. When she and I were discussing the "Which is worse?" question, she told me, "I knew he would die any minute, but I didn't want it to be THAT minute. As we sat by his bed in the final stages of his illness, I felt like I needed one more moment of knowing I could touch him, hear his breath, and see that face I loved so much, before I could let him go." In the end, none of us get to choose when the time to say good-bye has arrived. We say those words in whatever circumstance we are given.

Getting used to Phil's physical absence was one of the hardest things I have ever done. The only thing harder was figuring out what to do with my life after he was gone. Widowed people were pivotal in my ability to make a new life for myself after Phil's death. Seeing that recovery from this massive loss was possible through the stories of others who survived grieving the loss of their spouse drove me forward day after day. I became determined to honor Phil's life by not wasting a moment of mine.

To honor the lessons taught to me by the many widowed people who shared their stories and their wisdom with me, I created a program called Camp Widow. This weekend long event provides widowed people with tools, resources, support, and inspiration for recreating their lives in the aftermath of the loss of a spouse or life partner. Being surrounded by other people who "get it" is more powerful than I can accurately describe. While widowhood makes you different in your everyday life, at Camp Widow your widowhood is the reason you belong. The Camp is one of the main resources The Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation offers to widows. The organization is a one-of-a-kind organization that improves the quality of life for grieving people by reducing the life-limiting isolation associated with loss.

Camp Widow Participants

At Camp Widow we laugh, we cry, we discuss, we learn, and we hope. What we hope for, and what we strive to offer at the Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation, is a tomorrow that honors our past, and also embraces the possibility of the future.


Michele Neff HernandezMichele Neff Hernandez is the founding President, and Executive Director of the Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation. Soaring Spirits is a non-profit organization committed to providing resources and peer support to people grieving the loss of a loved one, with a special focus on those who are widowed. Michele inspires people as a motivational speaker and freelance writer. She also works as a member of the Bereavement Training Team for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and is a regular contributor to various websites, blogs, magazines, and collaborative book projects. Michele has contributed to over 30 different websites, blogs, and publications for single project work. Ms. Neff Hernandez is a resident of Simi Valley, California where she lives and laughs with her three amazing children, and is newly married to an amazing Aussie who supports and encourages her work with the widowed community. An avid runner and outdoor enthusiast, she actively encourages others to embrace the life they are given.

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Funders
MetLife Foundation The Lippey Family Trust Gladyce L. Foster
California Community Foundation