TAMPA — Lymphoma took Dusti Manning's husband days before their first anniversary, leaving the Tampa woman to raise a 10-week-old baby alone. She was newly widowed at 29.
So was Crystal Herrera of Palm Beach County, whose husband died of heart failure with their baby daughter in his arms and a son in his wife's belly.
"Old people are supposed to be widows," she remembers thinking. "Not me."
The two women and scores of other people who have lost partners will gather at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina starting Friday for Camp Widow, two days of workshops followed by a 5K run on March 9 dubbed the Widow Dash.
Camp topics? Being newly widowed. Handling financial issues. Being widowed by sudden loss. By illness. By suicide. There's also a talk just for widowers.
They all found each other in an online world where grief never has to be alone.
More than 1 million Americans are newly widowed each year, the Census Bureau reports. One-third are under age 65.
"I didn't have anyone to show me anything," recalled Manning, now 34, who recently started a Tampa Bay area outpost of Soaring Spirits International, the California-based nonprofit that sponsors Camp Widow.
"Something as simple as going to the Social Security office is daunting," she said. "Life insurance, the will, probate court. There's so much new language we shouldn't have to know that we really don't want to know."
This is Tampa's first time hosting Camp Widow. Admission is limited to widowed people, but the 5K run is open to all. Fees range from $35 for the run to $375 for all events. Camps are also planned for San Diego in July and Toronto in September.
The conference grew out of an online community founded in 2008 by a woman in Simi Valley, Calif. Her husband of five years was hit from behind on a bicycle in 2005, leaving Michele Neff Hernandez a widow at 35.
She felt both a desire to drown and an instinct to swim.
"This is my life?" she recalls thinking after his death registered. "For real? This is my life?"
Nothing she read helped. She didn't want to hear about stages of grief. She wanted to know if other widows wore their husband's clothes. Did they sleep on his side of the bed?
"How do you blend what is with what was and what will be?" she said. "That's a challenge we're not prepared for."
She interviewed other women, thinking she might write a book. Instead, she launched a website, which in turn spawned camps.
Camp Widow, which drew 300 people to San Diego last year and as of Friday had registered 150 for Tampa, is one piece of a wide-reaching organization. Hernandez said about 1.5 million people have participated in a Soaring Spirits International program. Nearly one-fourth are men.
Parts of the organization's website (soaringspirits.org) are open to nonmembers, including Widow's Voice, a daily blog written by seven widows.
There's also the Widowed Village (widowedvillage.org), a forum with open discussions, plus 23 public groups ("Pregnant Widows," "Military Families," "Suddenly Widowed"), 17 private groups ("Questioning Faith," "12-Steppers") and member chats.
Only members can post comments. Membership is limited to widows and widowers. Volunteers screen applicants to verify that a spouse has died.
"What is the most insensitive thing someone has said to you about your loss?" one public thread begins.
Nearly 2,000 replies follow.
Then, too, there are regional social groups like the one Manning started in Tampa.
Her husband died in November 2009. At the time, she was a probation officer attending nursing school. The new mother bore down on finishing her degree and landed a hospital job. And then grief caught up with her.
"It just goes in waves," Manning said. "You can have an awesome day and all of a sudden something can trigger a memory and the day comes crashing down."
Searching online last spring, she found a notice for the 2013 Camp Widow in San Diego. She remembers arriving to a gathering of widows at a poolside bar and feeling at ease in minutes.
"Everybody knows what's going on without having to say anything," she said. "Everybody just gets it."
She started the Tampa regional group in November. As many as seven widowed people meet twice a month for dinner, bowling or other activities.
Herrera, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, launched a sister group in Palm Beach County after her husband's death nearly three years ago. She grew up in Temple Terrace, where she was known as Crystal Ward.
On one of many sleepless nights, she came across the online Widowed Village.
She's organizing this year's Widow Dash in Tampa. Never a runner before her husband's death, she started running to save her heart for their children.
"I don't know that we'll ever get over it," she said. "One thing we have to do is learn to live our new life. Camp Widow helped me get to that step and to appreciate that we don't have to forget our late spouses.
"We can embrace them and still continue to live on."
Researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Staff writer Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.