There was no way that Christmas was going to be easy for Daniel Brooker and his two young children after his wife Lyndsie lost her 10-year battle with cancer.
At their church, friends cautiously asked if Brooker and one of his kids wanted to play a role in the Christmas service — making their story part of a season of new life.
“My church saw ME, as a person” that first Christmas, said Brooker, a 37-year-old marketing specialist for a team of financial advisors near Atlanta. It was crucial that this offer “gave us something to do, something that didn’t ask us to hide what was happening. … They offered us this opportunity and let me think about it. They didn’t force anything.”
That positive experience became part of the process that led Brooker and an all-volunteer team of widowers, mentors, pastors and friends to create Refuge Widowers, a ministry for men who have lost their wives, especially young men with children.
This work grew out of the conviction, he said, that religious congregations have long demonstrated the ability to rally around widows — in part because women often play crucial roles in hospitality and care-giving ministries.
“Women are gifted at this. They know what to do,” said Brooker, who has since married a widow, Brittany, with three children of her own. “As much as I love the church, I’ve learned things are often different for widowers. … Church people aren’t trained to step in and fight through grief with a man.”
Yes, the faithful brought food and gift cards after his wife’s death. Some people volunteered with child-care as he tried to create new patterns for work and home life. Before long, however, many assumed that the best way to help was to funnel Brooker into the singles group. “Folks really didn’t know what to do with me,” he said.
Eventually, he met another young widower, and began building a support network. This evolved into RefugeeWidowers.com, which worked with 14 men in 2020, 16 in its second year and 18 this year. All expenses are paid by donors, working through the nonprofit Nothing is Wasted Ministries. Much of this year’s budget came from a single church.
These retreats have included men who, years after their loss, were still trying to process their grief. But Brooker said most of participants attend within a year of their loss and “it’s like they are saying, ‘I have to do this RIGHT NOW, or my grief is going to suffocate me.'”
The retreats last three days, with volunteers, including several widowers, helping newcomers share their stories in a safe setting. The goal is to create a network that lives on, through calls, texts, emails and online small-group sessions. Many of the conversations focus on the needs of the men’s children.
“Kids often see that their dad is alone. He’s hiding his grief, so they tend to follow along,” said Brooker. “We want men to know that this healing process is not just for them. It’s for their children and for their children’s children. This pain can go on and on.”
The final night includes a ritual in which the team takes a long iron rod and heats the end until it glows red. Each man is given a piece to pound with a sledgehammer and twist with tongs, creating a symbol of their grief and struggles.
“These men have faced losses that have affected them physically, mentally and spiritually. They look different. They feel different. They’ve been pounded on. They have different stories, but they’re on similar journeys and they’re trying to keep going,” said Brooker. “All of that twisting and pounding on red-hot metal turns into something therapeutic.”
One man in this year’s circle had lost his wife and child, who were both shot by an intruder. “He pounded on his piece of iron until it was basically gone. He stared at it and stared at it, and I have no idea what he was thinking and processing. But that’s the point. He needed men around him who were still working on their own grief,” said Brooker.
“We have to keep telling these men: ‘We’re not here to tell you it’s OK. We’re going to stay with you until you can say that it’s OK.’ “