Through her poetry, a widow hopes to reach those experiencing loss.
Susan Gross met her late husband, Alan, when she was 14 at a dance thrown by her northeast Philadelphia chapter of B'nai B'rith Girls, a national girls' youth movement that later merged into what is today known as B'nai B'rith Youth Organization.
“He came over to me — he left his date, can you imagine — and he got my phone number,” Gross recalled of their first meeting. “He called me the next night and that was it.”
Now 72, Gross has had plenty of time over the last decade to reflect on her marriage to Alan, which began five years after they first met at that social mixer and ended in 2003 when he passed away due to heart failure.
A public school teacher by trade, Gross initially tried to return to work after Alan died, but she quickly discovered that she was “like a non-functioning person — I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t do anything.”
In the time between then and now, Gross said, things were very tough on her as she tried to adapt to widowhood. She would drive her special needs adult son, who lives at home with her, to work and then get into bed for the rest of the day.
“I would pretend like everything was fine,” she explained. “People don’t understand what widowhood is — it’s very disorienting, like you lost your whole frame of reference.”
An initial attempt to get back on her feet in group therapy had a promising beginning but fizzled because the group met in an area of Philadelphia that was too long of a drive for her. But later, a fortuitous meeting took place at Goldsteins' Rosenberg's Raphael-Sacks funeral home while she was attending a funeral there. In the ladies' room she met a woman, whom she later found out was an employee of the funeral home, and immediately told the woman about her husband’s passing, even though several years had passed by that point. The woman suggested that Gross should take another attempt at group therapy, this time hosted at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, the Center City synagogue of which Gross is a member.
Not only did the second round of group therapy help her start to cope, it also led her to The W Connection, a national support group for widows. After becoming more involved, Gross helped open the organization's first satellite chapter, which she still currently heads, right here in Philadelphia.
She also made the decision to publish a poem she wrote about her journey through widowhood, which she titled Someone Used to Love Me: A Positive Walk Through the Loss of a Spouse.
But the book isn’t your typical self-help or poetry book; it is illustrated throughout its 25 pages, almost like a children’s book.
“There’s no way to do a how-to book about widowhood — there just isn’t,” Gross explained. “I just wanted it to be simple and easy to digest, because it’s very confusing to sit down and read a 300-page book, I couldn’t do it.”
The illustrations, drawn by Marlene D'Orazio Adler, are loosely based on Gross and her late husband, and page numbers are encircled by white hearts.
Gross’ newfound lease on life has encouraged her to reach out to others; she is currently mentoring a 27-year-old woman, whose husband died suddenly.
Her poetry, written entirely in rhymes, is baldly personal, with one line reading, "I need to scream and holler/And cry and cry and cry/I want to sleep forever/So I don't have to live with good-bye."
The bare emotions are intentional, according to Gross.
“So many women and their families pretend everything’s fine and they’re really having a hard time,” said Gross, adding that being a widow can become isolating. “People do leave you, people who were really good friends after awhile, they’re busy on the weekends, they can’t be bothered.”
She is hoping that Someone Used to Love Me, which is the first of a planned three books in a series — “like the Star Wars trilogy,” she explained — will help others experiencing loss find a way through the sadness.
“I turned a corner,” Gross concluded of writing the book. The book is about “reaching out, it’s hopeful — ‘I’m going to go out, I’m going to try things, I’m not going to stay stuck.’ ”