The United Nations observes June 23rd as International Widow’s Day to draw attention to the voices and experiences of widows and to rally support for them. Read below for my conversation with author and advocate Kristin Meekhof who shares her very personal story of losing her husband suddenly and what significance this day holds for her…
Katie Couric: What inspired you to learn about International Widows Day?
Kristin Meekhof: In 2007, I was 33 when my husband of 4 years died less than 8 weeks after being diagnosed with advanced adrenal cancer. After he died, I read everything I could about grief and loss, and I was very curious how the bereaved coped. Years later, I began to write a few pieces about loss for Huffington Post. My work caught the eye of someone in The Loomba Foundation.
In 2014, to my surprise, I was invited to the United Kingdom to meet Lord Loomba, CBE. During our meeting, I learned about International Widows Day. I also learned that his foundation wrote a comprehensive report delving into the economic, educational, social, religious and political status of widows across the globe and delivered this report to the United Nations.
What was the impetus for Lord Loomba beginning his foundation?
In 1997, Lord Loomba, CBE and his wife Lady Veena Loomba created what is now known as The Loomba Foundation in memory of his mother who is also a widow. At age 10, Lord Loomba was living with his siblings and parents in India when his father died. Lord Loomba, CBE, told me, he could never forget how his mother was treated as a young widow and single parent. His mother could no longer wear colorful clothing, had to remove her bindi, and was treated as an outsider by her own community. Years later, during Lord Loomba’s wedding ceremony to his wife, the priest asked for Lord Loomba’s mother to step away from the alter because widows are viewed as “bad luck”.
Lord Loomba, CBE felt a deep compassion for the injustices widows across the globe experience, and with his wife they started this foundation in the United Kingdom to empower widows. They also do work in India.
I understand the United Nations recognizes June 23 as International Widows Day because of Lord Loomba’s work. Why this date?
June 23 is the date Lord Loomba’s mother became a widow, and now the United Nations acknowledges June 23 as International Widows Day. In 2010 Lord Loomba said, the United Nation recognized there are 259 million widows and over 585 million children of widows worldwide. Tragically there are over 115 million widows live in poverty struggling to survive. Millions of widows face economic, political, cultural, social and religious discrimination and violence simply because of their status as a widows. And widows often lack access to adequate health care and they are unable to provide for safe and healthy living conditions for their children. Sadly, according to the Loomba Foundation, 1.5 million widow’s children die before their fifth birthday.
I know you also traveled to Kenya to learn firsthand how widows live in a slum called Kibera. Tell us about your experience.
Before I met Lord Loomba, CBE, I planned on traveling to Kibera to learn how widows survive with their children on less than a dollar a day. And coincidently, it was just 48 hours after my meeting with Lord Loomba that I landed in Kenya. I had a strong desire to learn how microfinancing really worked for them, both the positives and negatives and it was interesting to hear this from the perspective of widows with young children. I felt if I could see and deeply listen to widows who lived there I could be more helpful and impactful in supporting them.
What did you learn from the widows you met?
I witnessed an inordinate amount of strength and resilience. These widows with their children live on less than a dollar a day, and they are doing this without access to clean running water. They in less than 80 square feet with several other family members. There is only room for a twin bed, a chair and a small table. The widows I met rely heavily on microfinancing to support their children. And yet, despite these inhumane conditions, the widows spoke with warmth and kindness. Without prompting they also shared things they are grateful for which made me a bit teary- eyed.
How did this experience in Kenya shape your work as an author, social worker and life coach?
In my writing, and my speaking engagements and interviews, I often share a bit about my experience in Kenya. I’m always thinking of ways to bring awareness to the global plight of widows. I’ve attended several United Nations conferences which focus on the status of women. Also, I feel very fortunate to be able to use both my personal and professional resources to connect people with United Nations approved charities that support and empower widows across the globe. It also inspired me to give back to charities that help elevate and protect women.
Who inspires you to give back?
A handful of my closest friends, my dear friend and mentor Dr. Deepak Chopra who taught me to see giving back as a way to serve. Last year, I met the amazing team at the Whole Planet Foundation, and they directly help empower women on a global level. Simply being around this team for 48 hours and doing a service project was inspiring. I am also so inspired by Christy Turlington’s charity Every Mother Counts that I ran the 2017 New York City Marathon for it.
And the work that you do Katie, with cancer research, led me to volunteer at a cancer center. I resisted doing this direct type of volunteer work because it brought back such painful memories of my late husband’s medical crisis and my late father (died in 1979 from cancer when I was nearly five) but I saw what you were doing in honor of your sister Emily and husband Jay, and I knew I too could take action.