Widow hopes new group helps lift fog of grief for others
By JANE GARGAS | Yakima Herald-Republic, Wash. | Published: March 1, 2014
YAKIMA, Wash. — Because he would want her to.
After climbing out of an abyss of despair, she’s doing something she knows her husband would have done: she’s reaching out to help others in their grief.
Less than a year ago, Becky Blanchard suffered a profound loss when her husband was killed while serving in the Army in Afghanistan.
Capt. Aaron Blanchard, a 32-year-old native of Selah, was killed April 23 in an attack on his base.
“He was everything to me,” she says. “We were perfect for each other.”
Since that day, she’s struggled against the pain of her loss. She remembers the sense of finality, days filled with sorrow, the desire to talk to other widows and plead, “What do I do next?”
For Blanchard, the idea of finding someone who could empathize with her situation was compelling. She realized that being around others who had lost their husbands would help her heal, and she, in turn, might be able to help others heal.
Initially, after Aaron’s death, when Blanchard was living in North Carolina, she found solace from a national military group, called the American Widow Project, which brings survivors together after they’ve lost a spouse and offers peer support. She says it helped her so much that she hoped to find a similar group in Yakima.
However, when she moved to Gleed in August to be near Aaron’s relatives, she says she found a dearth of resources for those bereaving the loss of a spouse.
“There was nothing. Nothing,” she says. “I was shocked.”
Blanchard combed websites, called churches and investigated other support groups, but she says she couldn’t find anything just for widows and widowers.
She was particularly frustrated because she suspected there was a large number of people who had lost spouses here. In fact, according to the 2012 American Community Survey, a yearly statistical sample compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau, there are slightly more than 10,000 widows and widowers living in the city of Yakima.
Believing that Aaron would have urged her to fill the void, she decided she could organize a group to help others. “No matter how old or young you are, it’s a horrible loss when your spouse dies,” she says.
Blanchard approached the pastoral staff at Yakima Foursquare Church, who were receptive to her idea.
The Rev. Mark Grange, a pastor at Foursquare, says that the Rev. Dave Edler, senior pastor, encouraged Blanchard and offered to help, seeing the idea as an extension of the church’s calling.
“It’s what we do,” Grange says. “Part of our mission is to rally around people who are hurting. We love it when someone wants to serve God and minister to others in the same situation.”
Blanchard envisions that the group will meet at least once a month, alternating between day and evening gatherings. The idea is to welcome men and women of all ages and provide an outlet for finding comfort.
She knows how important that is. In the initial days after losing Aaron, “I couldn’t understand how anyone could live with that much pain.”
Fighting depression, she remembers being so overwhelmed that she’d cry for no reason.
She hardly ate or slept for the first three weeks after his death, she recalls.
“I felt physical pain for three months,” she says. “That’s when I decided I had two choices. I could give up and stop living or live life to the fullest, knowing that Aaron wouldn’t want me to lie around.”
Little by little, Blanchard began to heal. Counseling gave her insight, but what gave her the most guidance was prayer: “Faith, in general, was most helpful.”
The night after she learned about Aaron, she says she heard a voice telling her that she wouldn’t be going through the ordeal by herself. “I struggled that God didn’t stop it (Aaron’s death), but I know God didn’t leave me alone.”
Still, she doesn’t minimize how hard the last 10 months have been, describing intense sadness. But, one day last December, she experienced a fog lifting from her soul. “I had a God moment where I felt how much God loved me. That brought me my joy back.”
With that, she’s determined to make life as normal as possible for her two children, Hunter, 5, and Amalia, 3, believing it’s important that they grow up where their father did. “I prayed about where to live and felt I had to move to Washington and give the kids part of their dad.
“He loved it here and I feel closer to him here,” she says.
Blanchard wants her children to know how much she misses and loves their father because she knows they miss him, too.
“Aaron was an amazing dad. He was instantly great at it. With both of them, he changed their first diaper and gave them their first bath. He’d stop everything he was doing to play with them.”
Even during her initial grief, she says she had little trouble making big decisions because she prayed over them, but the little ones flummoxed her. For instance, upon arriving here in August, she quickly bought a house and a car. She found it much harder to figure out what to feed the kids for dinner.
Prayer guided her from the beginning, she recalls. Early on, she had to decide whether to view Aaron’s damaged body when it returned to the Valley from Afghanistan. After praying, she decided she didn’t need to know.
Once Blanchard made the decision to continue to live life fully, as she says Aaron would have wanted, she began looking outward. She started volunteering once a week as a tutor at Madison House, the Union Gospel Mission’s youth center, “to take the focus off myself.”
She followed her husband’s mantra of exploring new vistas and took flight lessons, just as he did when he became a pilot.
Although she decided flying planes wasn’t for her, “every time I did something I didn’t think I could, it was empowering. It was like the slogan says, ‘Be the change you wish to see.’”
For the most part, Blanchard has been able to live up to that, but she acknowledges it’s difficult working through anguish.
“There are things you have to accomplish when you go through grief and understand how it affects your life,” she confirms. “It’s hard to think that I really am a single parent. “
Those struggles are one of the reasons she thinks a support group could give widows and widowers an outlet for dispelling their grief. Although the group will gather in a church, she doesn’t necessarily see it as religious.
“It won’t be a Bible study. If someone finds God, that’s great, but it’s mainly for people who want to make friends with people who’ve gone through what they have and learn from each other. But it won’t be a pity party.“
It’s possible the group will want to take on activities together, such as volunteer projects, “doing things out of our comfort zone,” Blanchard says. “I’m not trained as a life coach, but I’m good at hosting, and I hope people won’t be put off by my age.” (She’s 32.)
The best outcome, she says, will be helping each other know they can survive a great loss.
“I still have a long way to go, but I have my joy back,” she says. “I’m me again.”