[healing arts]
Time to Laugh Again
Louise Stanger helps 9/11 widows move on with their lives
by Kelly Knufken
Many of the 9/11 widows that Louise Stanger met with in New York had married their high school sweethearts, leaving them with limited dating experience.

In the streets of New York, Louise Stanger found reminders of 9/11 everywhere. Firehouse doors. The incessant sound of sirens. Ground Zero. Just about any place Stanger went, 9/11 was close enough to reach out and touch. And she knew those reminders remain particularly poignant for the women whose firefighter husbands died as heroes on Sept. 11, 2001.

It was those women that Stanger — USD’s director of alcohol and other drug services — was in New York to help. She spent some time this fall giving workshops to help them explore what they might want from their dating life. While there, she got a look at New York as the 9/11 widows see it. Stanger is fond of saying, “Once a widow, always a widow,” but in the Big Apple, she learned there are even more complexities involved for these particular widows.

“They’re a wonderful group of women trying to live ordinary lives in extraordinary times,” Stanger says. Her workshops were aimed at helping them re-enter the dating pool, but she also brought knowledge that could help them feel less isolated.

Some of what Stanger knows about being a widow comes from talking with hundreds of widows while researching her doctoral dissertation on resiliency among those left behind. Based on those interviews, she is developing a book titled Good Grief for Widows and Their Families. She credits her doctoral adviser, USD business professor Johanna Hunsaker, with allowing her to research the topic she was most passionate about. But most of what Louise Stanger knows about being a widow comes from deep within herself: It comes from being the daughter of a widow. It comes from being the granddaughter of a widow. And it comes from being a widow herself. Stanger was widowed at age 44.

Even years later, when asked about her experience, Stanger lets out an audible sigh. “Ohhh.

I guess it was about as traumatic as you can get.” Her first husband died suddenly of heart disease, and just like that, her life changed.

Now, years after their lives were altered forever, many of the firefighter widows are at the stage when they’re ready to talk about dating and relationships. Still, reaction from the widows at Stanger’s talks ranged from, “I’m really ready for this” to

“Why are you here?” Some of the women were curious, but had vowed they would never date again because they had already found — and lost — the love of their lives.

Stanger coached them about dating just to date, rather than expecting every date to lead to a long-term relationship. She explored their fears that dating might be a betrayal to their husbands, and talked with them about how their children might act out. She shared her own experience: When Stanger was ready to date again after losing her husband, her children threatened to rig a bucket of water to be dumped on the head of her first date. “They loved that story,” she says of the New York widows.

Stanger’s research showed her that spirituality can be an important factor in moving forward. “That’s what allows you to laugh again. And that’s what these women are trying to do — to be able to laugh again, to smile again, to feel again,” she says. Many also are trying to shake their label as cultural icons.

Near the end of her trip to New York, Stanger found herself at St. Patrick’s Cathedral trying to take in the enormity of the 9/11 widows’ experiences.

“I never planned on being a third-generation widow. And none of the women I met planned on being a young widow,” says Stanger, now remarried. “There I was in St. Patrick’s Cathedral — and I’m not Catholic — lighting candles and thanking God for the spiritual path that He took me on to be invited into their lives.”

It was an experience that reconfirmed her own quiet certainty: You never know where you’ll end up.

For more information on Stanger’s work with widows, go to