On Valentine’s Day, ‘widow mamas’ in Fresno recall love and move forward together

If this was a Valentine’s Day of years past, Janine Healy would be enjoying a homemade feast of all-red foods, including pasta noodles she dyed red, with her husband, Jim, and their three children.

She’d be enjoying Jim, a man she describes as a fun-loving “goofy dad” with a servant’s heart who was “motivated by fun.”

But those days are now beloved memories.

Jim Healy was fatally struck by a car in 2013 while cycling with friends.

Janine felt completely alone in the wake of his death. But soon other tragedies made her just one of a number of friends in the Fresno area who found themselves widowed while still raising children.

Janine started hosting a monthly support group at her Fresno home for them called GIG – Gals In Growth – facilitated by grief counselor Patty Behrens. From that group, a lovely new tradition was born: an annual “Widow Mama Valentine Dinner,” now in its third year.

Janine Healy holds a photo of herself and her husband during a Valentine’s Day dinner before he passed away in 2013. Healy will be attending the annual “Widow Mama Valentine Dinner” with other widows as a way of coping with the holiday without their loved ones. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

It’s hosted by one of the GIG members, Dorina Lazo Gilmore-Young, who describes food as her “love language.”

Dorina, an author, speaker and former Bee reporter, wrote about the first annual dinner in 2017 on her blog, dorinagilmore.com, where she focuses on helping people navigate grief.

“I know Valentine’s Day can be hard when you are missing someone you love,” she wrote. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, but we were all surprised by joy and a few tears as we each remembered what we loved most about our husbands. Each one talked about husbands who had made them feel loved and cherished, who were their cheerleaders, their best friends, their spiritual leaders and the faithful fathers of their children.

“I saw courageous mothers around that table. I saw women digging deep to rise above the ashes. I saw widows who were not willing to be defined by pity, but instead held fast to faith. Their strength buoyed mine.”

Janine Healy, left, Leicia Riding, center, and Dorina Lazo Gilmore-Young look over photos of their husbands who have passed away during a meeting at Gilmore-Young’s home in Fresno. The women belong to G.I.G. (Gals in Growth), a group for young widows with children, and will be attending the annual “Widow Mama Valentine Dinner” as a way of coping with the holiday without their loved ones. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Dorina lost her husband, Ericlee Gilmore, to cancer in 2014 when their three daughters were 2, 5 and 8 years old. She later remarried one of his best friends, Shawn Young.

Dorina loves how Shawn gives her freedom “to cry, to remember, and to celebrate Ericlee’s life.” At the Widow Mama Valentine Dinner, Shawn serves their guests food and cleans up in the kitchen while the women enjoy a special sisterhood together.

Leicia Riding said the dinner “makes me feel like I have a place.”

Her husband, John Riding, died of a heart attack in 2014 while playing volleyball when their three children were 13, 16 and 19 years old.

John, Jim, and Ericlee are still missed immensely. The women describe them as gregarious, funny, fun and helpful, with a “deep faith.”

Among the things Janine misses most about Jim is “just being known by another human here on Earth.” And one of the hardest things, she says, “is thinking this person knew everything about me and loved me and just feeling like you’ll never have that again.”

Community has helped them heal.

“My encouragement to other widows is just to reach out for some type of community,” Dorina said, “and sometimes that involves being vulnerable yourself and just saying that I need that.”

Janine cherishes friends who have reached out to her.

“It’s very hard to call them, so I know I’ve always appreciated that, when couples have included me,” Janine said. “I just think that’s a blessing.”

Everyone has a different journey through the pain of losing a loved one, Leicia says, but “grief is grief.”

“The more you talk about it and are able to share about it – I can’t say the easier it gets, because that’s not necessarily true – but it’s very healing,” Leicia said. “That’s what we say in GIG: ‘We are moving forward.’ ”

Twenty adults and 15 children were expected at this year’s Widow Mama Valentine Dinner, hosted the night before Valentine’s Day. An Italian dinner, with tiramisu for dessert, was on the menu. Dorina planned to send everyone home with chocolates, bouquets of flowers, and lots of love.

How to connect

Widows in the Fresno area are welcome to email Janine Healy at jhealys@sbcglobal.net about GIG – Gals In Growth – hosted at her home once a month. Dorina Lazo Gilmore-Young helps people navigate grief through her blog, dorinagilmore.com, and a new online community, Widow Mama Collective.

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Carmen George is a features and news reporter for The Fresno Bee. Her stories have been recognized with Best of the West, George F. Gruner, and McClatchy President’s awards, and nine first or second place awards from the California News Publishers Association. She has a passion for sharing people’s stories to highlight issues and promote greater understanding.