When Donna Marie Todd’s husband died, she was 55. “People my age aren’t expecting their spouse to die, especially not a healthy, very active spouse,” she says. “My husband had no illnesses before his stroke; he was an avid mountain biker, runner and marathoner — the picture of health. Then he stroked and wasn’t.”
Todd spent 10 months caring for her husband before he passed. Married for 23 years, she had a lot of unanswered questions about what her life would look like in the future. Bereavement counseling helped her begin to heal and understand her grief, but she found a lack of resources when she set out to rebuild her life. A professional storyteller, singer, writer, teaching artist and retreat leader from Black Mountain, she decided to create a one-day retreat for women — A Widow’s Tale.
“There were things that talked about grieving,” says Todd, “but in terms of learning how to re-create your life as a single person after having been married for a while, there were no resources available for that.”
As she submerged herself in research, she began to see a need to let other women know what she found. The idea for A Widow’s Tale evolved from her own experiences so that she could guide others through the healing process and help them learn ways to establish a new single-person identity.
“When your spouse dies, you find yourself in this weird transitional time,” she says. “After about six months or so, you are done with all of the paperwork, such as the filing of the federal estate tax return and all of the county documents, going through the will and sorting through things in your house.
“Then you find yourself in a very new place where you are now a single person again,” says Todd. “How do you reclaim your life? How do you identify your life without the other? How do you build a new life?”
“The retreat offers women a place to find the tools and strategies to rebuild a life without [their significant] other,” says Todd.
And this happens in a setting where the other women are supportive of what you are trying to do and why, she adds.
The name for the retreat came from Todd’s passion for storytelling.
“Every widow has a tale,” she says. “I want to help women claim their stories, so they can claim their healing.”
“We will hold sacred space for each other,” says Todd. “There are things about being widowed that only another widow can understand.”
Todd applied for and received a grant from the National Storytelling Network, which underwrites the research she was doing and helps her develop materials for the widow-centered retreat.
“The more I have gotten into the research and talked to other widows about their experience, the more I feel that these retreats are meeting a larger need instead of a smaller one,” she says.
From the one-day retreat, women can expect to share their stories, learn about the science behind grief, explore techniques and exercises on how to stop fearful thinking, participate in small- and whole-group work, dabble in art and even talk about the way dating has changed over the years.
“Participants leave with a plan,” says Todd. “They leave with a workbook filled with ideas, with realizations, with ‘I am’ statements, and with the support of other women that they have gotten along with.”
Participants can also expect to have a lot of fun, she adds.
Amy Arrendell, an independent real estate property manager in Asheville, lost her husband of 17 years three years ago, when she was 62.
She attended the first Widow’s Tale retreat in January, searching for additional support. “The grief process doesn’t end in one year,” says Arrendell. “The retreat gave me support when hospice and other things were over.
“I took away from the retreat more confidence about my progress in my grieving process,” she says. “I took away this experience of creativity that I can use anytime to bring me into the present moment, and that’s when we are happy — when we are in the present moment.”
Arrendell said she really connected with the creativity part of the retreat. “We had this very simple art activity where all we did was use pieces of cloth to decorate the front of our folder that held our handouts,” she says. “Being able to experience my creativity was not something that I had done since Robert died, and I found so much satisfaction and happiness out of that very simple art activity.”
Karen-Eve Bayne, 58, of Hendersonville, said the biggest thing she took away from the January retreat was that she was not alone in the process.
“Other people had found ways to be happy and thrive, and so could I,” says Bayne, who lost her husband 10 years ago when she was 42 years old. “I took away a hopefulness of how to move through it, honor it and move on.
“I feel as though I had been given the tools to understand how grief and absence works in the mind, in the body and in the heart,” she says. “Having an understanding of that leads me to peace of mind and has enabled me to take action in life, such as dating.”
Who should attend the retreat? It’s geared toward women of all ages, although younger widows may find it more helpful than those over 75, says Todd.
“I think this retreat is helpful for anyone who has lost their partner,” Arrendell says. “I encourage women to attend whether that loss has been recent or it has been many, many years.”
Bayne says that she thinks the retreat is best suited for women 18-24 months after a death, so they have had time to process the grief aspect of it.
“If someone is really stuck and they need to be in the grief process for five years, they might not be ready for this,” says Bayne.
“The retreat is for people who want to move on and learn how to process what happened to them in a positive way, and to go forward and to reclaim their life,” she says.
WHAT: A Widow’s Tale retreat. The cost for the one-day retreat, which includes lunch, snacks and all retreat materials, is $129. To register, call 664-1657.
WHEN: 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday, June 13.
WHERE: Christmount Conference Center, 222 Fernway, Black Mountain
MORE INFO: donnamarietodd.com/programs