Autumn Toelle’s life was turned upside down when her husband, Joe, died suddenly in February of 2015.
Joe — who was an athlete, avid hunter, and wildfire fighter — lost his life when his heart stopped while he was jogging.
“Apparently, he had something wrong with his heart, but they don’t know exactly what happened,” Autumn said.
Joe was only 30 when he died, and Autumn was 31. The couple’s oldest child was about to turn 3, and their youngest was just two weeks old.
Autumn said the Harney County community reached out to her when Joe died. C&B Sanitary Service provided free garbage services, Wagner’s Furniture brought her a refrigerator to use, and so many people brought meals that she didn’t have to cook for at least six months.
Although she received a great deal of support from the community, Autumn said she felt that she’d benefit from connecting with others who could relate to her experience.
After searching online, she found Soaring Spirits International and attended Camp Widow (the organization’s premier, in-person event) in June of 2015.
About Soaring Spirits International
Established in 2008, Soaring Spirits International is a 501 (c) (3) corporation that provides a unique, peer-based support community for widowed men and women in the United States and around the world.
Executive Director Michele Neff Hernandez explained that the goal of this inclusive, secular, life-affirming organization is to connect widowed people with each other to provide hope and healing through the grieving process.
“We are positive and forward thinking, while focusing on offering our members the tools and resources they need to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of the death of a spouse or partner,” Neff Hernandez explained.
Autumn said that, “Hope matters,” is one of the organization’s primary slogans.
“It’s not necessarily [about] dealing with what’s happened in your life, but it’s how do you live after it?” she said. “It’s kind of a little more positive, forward looking than some of the other groups that are around.”
An inclusive organization
Because widowhood happens to people young and old, every day, in every country, and with no bias or discretion, Soaring Spirits serves a diverse range of individuals.
Members of the Soaring Spirits community come from all walks of life, and people have attended Camp Widow from every state in the U.S. as well as from Canada, the United Kingdom, Singapore, India, Kenya, Iraq, Ireland and Australia.
Members range in age from 20-87 (with an average age of 42), and 55 percent of members are parents of multiple dependent children.
They have experienced the death of a spouse, life partner, fiancé, or common law spouse due to illness, plane crashes, accidents, military duty, suicide, homicide, and a multitude of other causes.
Since its inception, Soaring Spirits has reached more than 1.5 million widowed people through its unique support programs.
The Widowed Pen Pal program matches widowed people with each other for one-on-one, supportive email correspondence, while the Widow’s Voice Blog features daily posts from widowed people who share the ups and downs of their journeys.
Widowed Village is an online community that allows widowed people to connect with each other from the comfort of their own homes. Soaring Spirits also uses social media (such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) to provide a community of support.
Hosted twice a year in the U.S. and annually in Canada, Camp Widow is an in-person, weekend-long event that brings widowed people together from around the world to celebrate the healing power of a community.
“The focus of Camp Widow is recreating the future, while honoring the past,” Neff Hernandez explained. “The weekend is packed with useful tools, reliable resources, and the invaluable experience of being surrounded by peers in this unlikely, but incredible, community.”
An informational flyer for the organization describes the camp as, “A place where being widowed isn’t odd, no matter what your age.”
Autumn said, “You’re all identified by a name tag and how long you’ve been widowed for, so you can automatically connect to people that are in the same time frame out.”
She said other similarities — such as religious affiliation, parental status, and the type of death experienced — are also used to forge connections among campers.
“There are probably five or six women that I met [at Camp Widow] that, for one reason or another, I was able to relate to,” Autumn said, adding that they’ve remained in touch and continue to provide support for each other.
Regional Group Program
Soaring Spirits’ Regional Group Program extends the Camp Widow community to widowed men and women in cities, towns and provinces across North America by providing regular, local support.
Autumn described the program as a social group, as the goal is to bring people together for a night of fun, entertainment and togetherness.
She recently started a regional group in Harney County, and it’s the first of its kind in the state of Oregon.
“I’m starting this regional group because I want to bring one branch of support closer to the community and make it easier for widows/widowers to find support from those in similar situations,” Autumn explained. “I want to add to the community because the community, when Joe died, really was great.”
She said the group will help community members who have already experienced loss and be available to anyone who may need it in the future.
“I’d be perfectly happy if nobody needed any of this, but I want them to know it is there if somebody does,” Autumn said. “What they say is, when you get widowed, you’re part of the group nobody wants to be a part of, and nobody wants the membership to grow. Nobody wants you to be in this club, but when you’re able to kind of recognize that you are, you also kind of open the doors to a support network that you may not have anywhere else.”
She added that the group is available to anyone, regardless of gender, age, religion or relationship status.
“It doesn’t matter if you were married, or dating, or engaged, or divorced,” she said. “People that are divorced, when their ex dies, they still go through the grief process.”
Autumn will host at least one meeting a month in a variety of locations throughout Harney County. She also hopes to expand into Bend.
The next meeting will be held Monday, March 13 from 5:45-7:15 p.m. at El Toreo in Burns.
A source of hope
When asked about the value of Soaring Spirits’ programs, Autumn said, “You’re able to kind of just share what you’re going through, and you don’t have to be on guard about bringing other people down.”
She explained, “People are very caring and, for the most part, I think legitimately wanted to know how I was doing, but they didn’t really want to hear the answer because, a lot of times, it was a depressing answer. For the first month I was back at work, I wore slippers because, by the time I was dressed, I had no energy to put on shoes. And it sounds super depressing, but in the group with other people that get it, it’s a joke. I mean, at some point, if you don’t laugh, you’re going to cry. And so it kind of opens up to where you don’t have to put those walls up. You don’t have to worry about how other people are going to take it.”
She added that the organization brought her out of a “dark place” and helped her look toward the future.
“Nothing is going to take what happened away, and it’s not about going back to how you were. It’s about learning how to live with what happened, with who you’ve become, because you have a new normal. You’re never going to go back to what you were, and it’s kind of about embracing that,” she explained. “It truly was a life saver to me.”
Anyone who wants to help Soaring Spirits International can make a donation online at http://www.soaringspirits.org/donate-now
Donations can also be mailed to 2828 Cochran St. #194, Simi Valley, CA 93065.
To support the local regional group, please note that you are donating on behalf of the Soaring Spirits Regional Group Central/Eastern Oregon.
Autumn said there are a variety of ways to donate. For example, you can help cover the cost of activities, purchase an informational packet for someone who has been newly widowed, or sponsor someone’s camp membership.
Additional information regarding Soaring Spirits International can be found online by visiting the organization’s website at www.soaringspirits.org
For additional information regarding the local regional group, email Autumn Toelle at email@example.com