February 9 marked 10 years since Water Mill resident Diane Segreti’s husband, John, died of a pulmonary embolism.January marked five years since Pam Keating’s husband, William, died after suffering a heart attack at their home in Sag Harbor.
Both women had delayed their grieving. Ms. Segreti focused on her then-19-year-old son, Eric, and her elderly in-laws. Ms. Keating channeled her energy into planning, and eventually hosting, her then-27-year-old daughter Shea’s wedding. She was also looking out for her then-22-year-old son, Liam.
It wasn’t until they each discovered the W Connection that they found comfort in moving forward with their lives.
The W Connection, a national not-for-profit organization, supports widows of all ages through education, encouragement and empowerment. With an annual $40 membership, a widow has access to not only monthly meetings with other widows in her community, but also a peer mentoring program and a variety of resources to help her live her day-to-day life in the wake of her spouse’s death, with as little interruption as possible.
“It’s finding our new normal,” said Ms. Keating, who serves as leader of the group’s Hamptons chapter. “We’re reinventing ourselves—and doing a good job of it.”
The W Connection started in 2009 when founders Ellen Kamp and Dawn Nargi lost their husbands within 18 months of each other—Ms. Kamp’s husband, Eric, suffered a massive heart attack in 2006, and Ms. Nargi’s husband, Norman Ferren, died of cancer in 2007. Both women were working at Morgan Stanley in Manhattan, where Ms. Kamp was professionally mentoring Ms. Nargi.
The mentorship became personal when Ms. Nargi’s husband died, as Ms. Kamp had already experienced the same loss. Shortly into that new bond, an idea came to their minds.
“We realized early on that … we wanted to offer something to the widowed community that did not exist,” said Ms. Kamp, who lives in Sea Cliff. “It’s really important for me that people do not think of us as a bereavement organization. It’s really about regaining [a woman’s] identity, feeling empowered again, and feeling energized to really figure out this new chapter of their lives.”
It was with that thought that the first chapter of the W Connection, located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was born. Soon after came other nearby chapters on the Upper East Side and in Nassau County, Riverhead, and the Hamptons, as well as branches in Westchester County, New Jersey, Philadelphia and northern California.
P.J. Bigelow, a former resident of Sagaponack, first learned about the W Connection when she read the “Preoccupations” column in the April 29, 2012, issue of The New York Times that featured Ms. Nargi. Ms. Bigelow lost her husband, Chandler, to cancer in 2010, but before he died he had founded a cancer support group at Joshua’s Place in Southampton, and also involved himself with Fighting Chance in Sag Harbor, a cancer counseling group. Through those groups Ms. Bigelow said she often met “interesting” widows.
“I thought, ‘Huh—that would be a good thing to have out here,’” Ms. Bigelow said of the W Connection.
She first met with Ms. Kamp in June 2012, and the local chapter was formed shortly after. “These were people I connected to on a whole different level,” Ms. Bigelow said. “There’s a very common bond of unique women. I think it’s a very worthwhile experience.”
The Hamptons chapter of the W Connection has grown to 25 members and now meets the first Monday of each month at the Hampton Library on Main Street in Bridgehampton, from 4 to 6 p.m. But because widows make up about 10 percent of the female population in the United States—there are 11 million widows in the country, with a woman widowed every 40 seconds, according to the W Connection—both Ms. Keating and Ms. Kamp expect there are many more women on the South Fork who could benefit from being part of such a group.
“Clearly, there’s a need for, ‘What do I do now?’” Ms. Keating said. “I would certainly encourage a woman to come to a meeting to see if it’s something [she] would like to be a part of.”
For Ms. Keating, a retired probation officer who discovered the W Connection in 2013 after seeing an advertisement in the PennySaver, the group has proved to be more helpful than bereavement counseling, to which she went through East End Hospice. She explained that she found it hard to connect with people who lost their children, parents and siblings, and that she could better identify with the widowed women she met in the W Connection Hamptons chapter. She stepped in as its leader when Ms. Bigelow moved to Vermont to be closer to her children.
The social aspect has also been a highlight for Ms. Segreti, who learned about the group from Ms. Bigelow and Kathy McHugh, the group’s president of East End Resources, and thought she could be a mentor as it had already been six years since her husband’s death. Ms. Segreti said she had neglected their business, the Southampton Village Motel on Hampton Road, for years, but finally found it in herself to go back to work in 2014 and complete an extensive renovation of the facility.
She credited that motivation to the support she received from the W Connection.
“In the beginning, everybody’s there for you, everybody’s there. But then everybody kind of gets on with their life and, [after] that first year, you’re kind of sitting there going, ‘Wow. I really am a widow.’ Because now, all of the sudden, you don’t have that support group you had in the beginning,” Ms. Segreti said. “That’s really when I believe you need to come here.
“It’s nice to have the camaraderie of other women that, number one, maybe they’ve gone through it, or if they haven’t gone through it, they can give you a little insight on what to do,” Ms. Segreti continued.
Ms. Keating noted that because the South Fork isn’t as populated in the winter months as it is in the summer, “it can be very isolating” for a widow, no matter how recent or long ago her husband died. That’s why the women in the Hamptons chapter, who live across the South Fork, from Montauk to Hampton Bays, often go out to dinner or to the movies together. Also, they go to World Pie Restaurant in Bridgehampton after every meeting. They are now planning a beauty night at White’s Apothecary in Southampton Village in the coming weeks.
Although women tend to be catching up to men in terms of life expectancy, they still outlive them by about five years, according to the W Connection. The organization estimates that there are about 26 million married women in the United States between the ages of 45 and 65, thanks to the Baby Boomer generation, and that widows will surpass 10 percent of the female population within the next 20 years.
Because of that, Ms. Kamp said, the organization is continuing to grow, and there are currently two new chapters in the works, plus more additions to its website, www.wconnection.org.
“Life happens—we never plan for these tragedies,” Ms. Keating said. “You think you know what’s going to happen. And then when it does, everything shifts a little.”