Widow offers wisdom on transitions for United Way campaign
September 5, 2013 4:00 AM
Becky Aikman will speak on her book "Saturday Night Widows: The Adventures of Six Friends Remaking Their Lives" at United Way Women's Leadership Council's annual breakfast on Sept. 12.
By Joyce Gannon Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Becky Aikman may be one of the few widows ever to be shown the door at a support group.
After her husband died in 2004, Ms. Aikman, then 49, joined an organization for grieving spouses but couldn't find comfort in its conventional approach of discussing the various stages of grief such as anger and depression.
"When I talked to the social worker who ran the group about whether we could focus on the future, he said I didn't fit in and shouldn't come back," Ms. Aikman said.
Being cut loose only cemented her resolve to find a better way to cope with loss and led to the New York-based writer founding her own widows circle. Instead of talking mainly about the past, the six women met over meals, museum tours, cooking classes and other social outings as they attempted to move their lives forward.
Ms. Aikman, who chronicled the women's journey in her book, "Saturday Night Widows: The Adventures of Six Friends Remaking Their Lives," will talk about her memoir and experiences on Sept. 12 as keynote speaker for the United Way of Allegheny County's Women's Leadership Council Breakfast at the Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh, Downtown.
What makes her story pertinent for the event is that the Women's Leadership Council that day will kick off its second United for Women campaign, an initiative that supports women who are struggling because of unexpected life-changing circumstances such as job loss or a spouse's death.
"The United Way contacted me and it's a perfect fit," Ms. Aikman said. "They recognize that the approach of women helping women applies to all kinds of transitions in life."
The Women's Leadership Council is a nationwide organization that includes female professionals, retirees, community volunteers and others who donate a minimum $1,000 a year to their local United Way. In the Pittsburgh region, the women's group had 1,800 members who generated $7.8 million of a total $33 million raised for United Way's 2012 campaign, said Lisa Kelly, United Way development officer.
A year ago, the local women's council launched its United for Women program with a goal to raise $1 million specifically targeted for nonprofit agencies that assist women in short-term crisis in Allegheny County.
Though officials of the campaign declined to disclose whether they met the $1 million mark until they announce their results at next week's breakfast, they received donations from almost 1,200 individuals, corporations and foundations.
Some of the agencies that received funds were Family Services of Western Pennsylvania for a program that helps vulnerable women handle financial issues such as car payments or repairs; Bethlehem Haven to assist women experiencing homelessness for the first time; and South Hills Interfaith Ministries for a program to help women with short-term financial needs.
"We were incredibly successful, and all indications are ... that we'll increase our fundraising goal and participants for the coming year," said Pat Siger, a United Way consultant.
The response has been so great, she said, that the United for Women concept could eventually be replicated by Women's Leadership Councils in other cities.
"We've had multiple conversations with United Ways across the country, and they are very intrigued," said Ms. Siger. "If we have a good track record after year two, it could be a real model for Women's Leadership Councils to adopt nationwide."
For Ms. Aikman, her appearance in Pittsburgh means more than being able to encourage the local women's council to support women facing crisis. She grew up in Brookville, Jefferson County, and likes to travel here regularly to visit an aunt and her sister, Nancy Martin, a Highland Park-based author who writes the Blackbird Sisters Mysteries series.
After earning a bachelor's degree in English from Bucknell University and a master's in journalism at Columbia University, Ms. Aikman worked as a writer for newspapers and magazines including Business Week and New York Newsday.
When her husband died after battling cancer for more than four years, she decided to re-evaluate her career as well as her personal life. "I knew I had to reinvent my entire life. Everything was suddenly unknown."
Motivated to find alternative ways to deal with grief, she left the newspaper, interviewed scientists who had conducted research on trauma and loss, and then set out to find a group of women open to using friendship and humor as a means to healing. She told the members in advance that she planned to chronicle their experiences.
"It went against what I thought I was supposed to do to be a proper widow," said Ms. Aikman, who organized the women's first meeting in January 2010 and whose book was published three years later.
"The idea was that we would make this into a book assuming it didn't all fall apart in the first week. It succeeded beyond our wildest imaginations."