When her husband was alive, Sharon Rader held sway over the couple's kitchen.
Since George Rader died in May from complications of methicillin-resistant staph infection, his widow can't bear to enter her former sanctuary, even for the most basic sustenance.
"I don't even make coffee anymore."
No longer feeding a spouse and yet unable to feed herself, the 60-year-old Medford resident is still committed to feeding the needy at the food pantry she and her husband managed for eight years at Medford's First Christian Church.
"They were concerned as to whether I would keep the pantry going," she says.
Rader's daughter and son-in-law took the pantry's helm in the month following her husband's death. That's about the time Rader discovered Dave's Club, a free support group for widows and widowers held weekly in Medford. After attending a single meeting, Rader decided that managing the pantry and fundraising for ACCESS Inc. would help her overcome the fear and loneliness she's felt in the wake of widowhood.
"I found that I could reach down inside and get the courage to do it."
Dave's Club founder Sandy Baleria strives to impart courage each week through members' shared grief, sources of comfort and strategies for a meaningful life bereft of a beloved spouse. The Dave Baleria Center for Victory Over Grief was born from Sandy Baleria's determination to help herself and others on a long-term basis. A dearth of support groups geared specifically for widows and widowers led Baleria, 57, of Phoenix, to found the organization in her late husband's name in January.
"Victory is a word we both liked," Baleria says.
Baleria recently conquered severe depression that crippled her every move for about a year following Dave Baleria's February 2008 death of sudden heart failure. The 60-year-old, retired Jackson County sheriff's sergeant couldn't be resuscitated on the Benson, Ariz., street where he collapsed, Sandy Baleria says.
Traveling for almost eight years with her husband in their RV, Baleria made a final trip home to the Rogue Valley with his ashes and stayed to glean support from family and organizations like WinterSpring, a nonprofit center for those suffering loss and grief. But while two months of WinterSpring counseling helped Baleria's "early throes" of grief, it wasn't a long-term solution. Nor was private, individual therapy.
So the former emergency dispatcher and human resources worker constructed her own support network of fellow widows and widowers, who meet weekly at Medford's Wild River Brewing Co. Baleria facilitates the group, providing a consistent tone, constant encouragement and insights into grief that she's gained from avid reading.
"We want them to get out; we want them to exercise; we want them to find new activities," Baleria says, adding that her yoga classes are a "life-saver."
"Your old life is gone — that's why we have to reinvent ourselves."
Two months into attending Dave's Club meetings, Linda Moore is reinventing herself not as a widow but as a wife. The 67-year-old resident of a Medford senior community tells the other members she's remarrying a widower and moving to South Carolina. Her husband, Chuck, died a year and a half ago at the age of 87.
"You go, girl!" exclaims 65-year-old Joanne Lupton of Eagle Point.
"This is a good testament of hope," Baleria adds. "We're not dead yet."
It's a message Baleria can't emphasize enough after her own contemplations of suicide, a common grief response of widows and widowers, she says.
"We want to go and be with our spouse."
Failing to be with their spouses at critical moments, however, consumes widows and widowers with guilt — the emotion pervading a June Dave's Club meeting. Founding member Mike Beard, 61, of Central Point, has been unable to shake the specter of his wife's 2006 death of sudden-onset pneumonia. Christine Beard, 53, died alone at home, her husband of 21 years completely unaware that she was ill.
Rick Bender, 61, knew only too well his wife's deterioration from lung cancer. But his lament at leaving their Rogue River residence for a quick bite to eat — returning about 15 minutes after 59-year-old Suzanne died — overshadows his unfailing attendance of every treatment and doctor's appointment.
"But the day she died, I wasn't there," Bender says. "I feel as though I let her down."
Rader irrationally regrets that she didn't "nag" her husband to wash his hands more, which might have prevented the infection that cost him a leg five years before claiming his life. Railing against a medical system that couldn't save 61-year-old George Rader despite 15 operations over six weeks, his widow weeps before apologizing for the outburst.
"Don't be sorry," Baleria says. "This is the place to cry."
Five days later, Sharon Rader's outlook is brighter after concentrating on Baleria's "homework" assignment: finding a way to overcome some of grief's manifestations — fear and loneliness in Rader's case. Rader not only resumed management of the food pantry, she attended an ACCESS fundraiser and event to recruit volunteers. It was Rader's first attempt at socializing since her husband's death.
"I really put myself out there."
She credits Dave's Club and its members for the break-through.
"This group just really lifted me up.
"Thank you guys so much," she says, leaving her first meeting. "I'm home."