"I honestly had no idea how underserved widows were"

Written by: The Circles Team

Jul 25, 2021

This week we’d like to put the spotlight on Carolyn Moor, the President, Founder, and Development Director of Modern Widows Club. Widowed on Valentine’s Day 2000 and with two young daughters to raise solo, Carolyn struggled to find the mentors she needed to model the healing and growth she desperately sought. This ultimately led to the founding of Modern Widows Club in Carolyn’s very own living room in 2011, becoming an official nonprofit in 2015.

Can you tell me a little bit about you and your background, and what led you to create Modern Widows Club?

I actually see it as it created me. I became a widow on Valentine’s Day 2000. So this was pre-911 and there weren’t very many great resources for women in general, and there certainly weren’t any empowerment resources for women. That was just not even a concept that was culturally understood. I honestly didn’t know what was missing, back when I was newly widowed, I just knew something was missing. During my journey of volunteering at the local grief center where I took my daughters, I learned a lot about nonprofits. I’m actually an interior designer by profession, my late husband was an architect, and we had a fifty-person interior design firm when he died. There was no nonprofit or activism or advocacy in me. After becoming widowed, I received grief services for one year, and after that one year, you sort of graduate. As time went on, I thought there needs to be somewhere else to go, and I started exploring what that would look like. In 2005, I was on the board and already speaking for New Hope for Kids about how important it was for children’s grief, but there wasn’t really anyone talking about me and the women like me, that just wasn’t happening. I was then on this TV show on TLC called “Shalom in the Home” with Rabbi Shmuly Boteach, and I was the only parent episode on the show, and it was the most popular one. Someone from the Oprah Show saw it and invited me and Shmuly to the Oprah Show in 2006. At the time, I was a single parent running a new interior design business, and there was no margin for volunteering really, except for New Hope for Kids for board meetings. There was no margin to give back, mentor, or do anything to even think of that. Interior design was what paid my bills and I threw myself into that. But being on The Oprah Show brought thousands of widows in my direction through emails, showing up at my house, and sending me things. The Oprah effect happened to me. It was a wonderful thing that people felt endeared and reached out to me, but it was hard. So many friends wanted to introduce people to me to mentor but I’m a solo parent, raising two daughters and managing a home and a business. But when I was backstage during the show, Oprah spent some personal time with me and said, “Your story is so powerful, and I hope that you will do something with it, because I think that you have in you the ability to be a wounded healer. I don’t know what that’s going to be, but I would really encourage you to explore what that would be.” So my life really started at year six or seven, because it was truly just building a new life for the first seven years. So when Oprah went off the air, I saw it as my opportunity to control the situation. There were two widows in Central Florida in Orlando, that were kind of at their last straw, and I said, here’s what I’ll do, I’ll have Thursday afternoons available, and I’ll meet with these two ladies. That’s how it started, and it just never ended because those two widows wanted to bring two other widows the next time and so on and so forth. So thousands of widows have come to my home. And then widows started flying to Orlando to ask if I can help them do the same thing in Kansas City, Seattle, and Houston, and I just never stopped saying no because how do you say no to something so beautiful? Then that grew into becoming a nonprofit and actually going through the process of becoming an official nonprofit in 2015, and it just really grew into what it is today. I honestly had no idea how underserved widows were, I don’t think it’s common knowledge. No one’s training them to be really great mentors or leaders. When I went to the UN for the launch of the Global Widows Report in 2015, that was when my life changed. When I met widow advocates from Africa, the Philippines, the UK, and India, everything changed, because I realized how this is such a small subgroup of women but this is an international human rights and a women’s health issue. I don’t know how to change that, but I do know that what we’re doing is empowering more women, giving them tools and resources to find hope, heal and grow. The Seven Pillars of healthy widowhood that I constantly talk about, it’s just from listening to tens of thousands of widows. I started finding people and volunteers that could create because we just didn’t have any funding. Then in 2019, we found one seed funder who had actually made it possible for me to leave my interior design career and come and do this full time. We hired Gina, who was someone who was served by our community for three years, who had executive director experience. That was really the game-changer right there because we now had funding to be able to hire widows. It really has been a big social experiment. We try things, and then we learn from them, and then we improve. We’re on that path.

That’s incredible. You mentioned the pillars of empowering widows. Can you elaborate a bit more about that?

We have this proprietary program that we created ourselves from being around so many widow mentors and leaders. The Hope Heal Grow Lead is about explaining the process because people want to know what the process is of becoming newly widowed and where to go from there. So women really were able to identify where they were along the path. We developed Hope Heal Grow Lead and underneath that is our Empowerment Quiz on our homepage, developed by a mental health counselor, who is also a social worker and a widow. A lot of what we have at Modern Widows Club is very much that three-layer: what’s your profession, what’s your personal experience with widowhood, and bring your talents to MWC. That level of understanding builds trust, and that trust is the number one thing that’s really hard, so we have to meet them right where they are. So whether they’re brand new and grasping for hope, they’re welcome. If they’re in a heal stage, which is where all the work happens, we’ll meet you there. If you’re really wanting to uplevel and grow in areas and be challenged, we’ll meet you there. And if you want to become a leader, we’re going to meet you there too. Do the empowerment quiz, decide what you want to do, and we’re going to have different tracks for different people at our events and we’re also going to have e-courses. We really want women to identify where they are so they can have a starting point. Our goal is to get women to the point where they are empowered to be able to make confident decisions. When a woman does that she makes fewer mistakes, and when she’s in a community, she learns faster, because she’s learning from real lived experiences from other women who are right there with her. That’s, in a nutshell, what we’re doing at MWC. We also work with Dr. Steven Southwick from Yale School of Medicine. He’s the foremost researcher in PTSD, and resilience science in psychology. He’s been on our advisory board for six years and he’s really been instrumental in creating the Hope Heal Grow Lead process. We know it’s working because of our ladies. We have 10 years of ladies who are success stories. Our website is also translated into 39 languages because in the Global Widows Report from 2015, the most comprehensive widows report, it said there are 39 countries with more than 1 million widows. So we chose those 39 countries so that if they find our website, they can see that there are other widows that care about them, other widows organizations fighting for them, and they can understand in their native language that there is hope out there. There’s someone carrying the torch, and we’re that.

I saw that you have a very big advocacy effort in terms of fighting for the rights of widows. What do you think are the most pressing issues right now for widows in the United States and globally?

I attended the Commission on the Status of Women this year with UN Women and I also spoke at the International Widows Day official event, and I can tell you that financial insecurity, hands down, is number one. In the global south and in third world countries, it’s starvation. Families are committing suicide because there’s literally no way for these women to be able to provide anymore. So the stories that I heard at both of those events are harrowing. There’s definitely not enough focus on the fact that the poorest of the poorest women in the world are widows. No one’s willing to call that out or identify that. UN Women has estimated that since COVID there are 2 million new widows in the world. That’s staggering. Why is it not being recognized? Why isn’t it recognized by our government in the United States? Widows aren’t seen as a demographic group. There’s no office for widowed persons at the administration of children and families in the Health and Human Services Department of the government. Why is that? There are almost 14 million widows in this country. There’s an office for trafficked persons, but there’s not an office for widowed persons. We know that 49% of the 14 million widows in the United States earn less than $25,000 a year. This is the United States. We have social security, we have programs, so why are these women grasping for resources? There’s no money or power to protect or to provide for widows, they just sort of slip through the cracks of the system. We need a national day to recognize widows. Until we get a day to nationally recognize the hardships that are happening in these widows’ lives we’re not going to get any media and we’re not going to get the government to look at social security differently, or that maybe widowed status needs to be longer than two years. No one is protecting widows and no one’s lobbying for them. So we went to DC and to find pro bono law firms that cared, and we have two of them. Next year, we want to march in DC on International Widows Day and demand to be heard. If they’re not going to pay attention after a pandemic, then we’ve missed a huge opportunity. So, there are four reasons why all widows struggle, financial insecurity is number one, and number two, which was shocking to me, is disinheritance. In this country, we have laws that prevent your kids from being taken away, you can’t take your property away, there’s a legal process. But in other countries, kids are taken. A lot of cultures around the world are not in favor of protecting widows. The third is government neglect. There’s not one country going, “we are going to stand up for widows and be the example.” I want the United States to be that. I want to meet our president and have a very long conversation about how he can be the tip of the arrow on this worldwide. The fourth thing is social exclusion. In Africa, they’re not even welcome back in churches, because culturally they are seen as a curse. So financial instability, disinheritance, government neglect, and then social exclusion. So it’s the combination of those four things that make it extra hard. These secondary losses are actually what creates the cascading impact of driving you to poverty. Last year we did a really comprehensive survey, and we found that if someone experiences a sudden death, loss of health insurance, and feeling pressure to make important decisions, they have a four times chance of being diagnosed with PTSD, three times the chance of being diagnosed with depression, two times the chance of being diagnosed with anxiety, and three times brain fog. This is a women’s health issue. We were shocked by these findings, and so now we’ve written a medical paper that we’re trying to get into medical journals to get more people interested. No one is recognizing what happens when we don’t see the value in coming alongside someone in distress. When we don’t take the responsibility of actually recognizing what these women experience, it impacts families, communities, healthcare systems, and social systems.

What would be the best advice you could give people who are grieving the loss of their spouse?

First, realize that so many people love you and want to do something for you. If you allow them to do that then you’re inviting them to be a part of your healing. Women are so resourceful and are used to doing so many things at once. Widowhood is a perfect opportunity to micromanage everything. You don’t understand that you’re a brain frog and can get burnt out. That’s why we don’t interview anyone who is not in their second year. Those first two years you need to do the work of getting to the point of giving to yourself and giving back. The second and third are proven in resilience science. There are ten components that build resilience, eight of them you can do yourself and two things require going outside yourself. You have to find a community that understands you and you have to find resilient role models to imitate. I created Modern Widows Club because I needed those two things. Let people help you because you don’t understand how exhausting grieving can be and how healing a new circle of support will be for you. If you have those things, there’s nothing else you need to do.

Last question: Modern Widows Club is 10 years old this year. What has been the most memorable or meaningful part of leading MWC so far?

The most memorable thing is going from having hardly any support to having literally hundreds of solid new friends that no matter what happens to me in my life, these women will show up. I actually had an incident, I was getting engaged, and during COVID it blew up, and all these women showed up, and I experienced what Modern Widows Club does. There’s one thing to create something and another to experience what you created. This is how it should be. I went through my normal grieving process and I’m out of it now, and I can return to being the voice of a movement knowing that what we’re doing is truly revolutionary.

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