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Changing attitudes; Widows rely less on others to take charge of decisions

When Ida Fisher was widowed the second time, friends and relatives kept telling her how sorry they were. ''They said it was so unfortunate that I'd lost two husbands,'' she recalls. '' I suppose I could have chosen to view my life that way, too, but I couldn't live with that kind of negativism. I felt that I'd had a lot of goodness in my life, and I wanted to communicate that.''

Today Mrs. Fisher is helping lots of other women who find themselves in similar circumstances. She conducts frequent workshops for widows in southern California, has written a book titled ''The Widow's Guide to Life'' (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall), and in April will launch a seminar on widowhood at the University of California at Los Angeles.

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Across the continent in New York City, another expert recalls one of her first sessions at a widows' mutual help group following the death of her husband. ''There were women there who'd lost their husbands three or four weeks earlier, and they were talking about all the crazy things that had happened,'' says Isabella Taves. ''A woman arrived to join the group, and she was appalled at what was going on. She said, 'I can't believe you're laughing. I must be in the wrong place.'

''But she wasn't in the wrong place,'' Mrs. Taves continues. ''These women were helping each other through a difficult time, crying with each other one minute and laughing the next.''

Isabella Taves, who wrote the syndicated newspaper column ''Women Alone'' for eight years, and who has just finished a new book, ''The Widow's Guide'' (New York: Schocken), agrees with Ida Fisher that the many widow support groups now taking root around the US are an encouraging sign of changing attitudes. In addition to the strength widowed persons have traditionally found in religious faith, many women who a decade ago might have depended on others to make decisions for them following the death of their husbands, today are learning to take matters into their own hands, thanks to the help they're getting from other widows.

''Mutual support people feel that they can begin to take charge of their own lives,'' says Dr. Phyllis Silverman, whose pioneering research in widowhood in the late 1960s has been the model for many programs nationwide. ''These groups can provide new relationships as you begin to restructure your life.''

Of the 12 million widowed persons in the US today, more than 10 million are women, often young widows with young children to raise. Some may find information on child care services or financial planning at community agencies, but many others don't know where to turn for help.

''In most social service agencies, the client has to make the contact,'' says sociologist Ruth Loewinsohn, ''but a person who is newly widowed often just feels awful and doesn't know what to do about it. That's why our organization tries to make the initial contact.''

Ms. Loewinsohn is a senior program specialist with The Widowed Persons Service, a branch of the National Retired Teachers Association and the American Association of Retired Persons. ''Our basic concept is that people who have been widowed are the best to reach out to other widows and widowers,'' she says of the 130 programs the service sponsors nationwide. Each program, operated in conjunction with community agencies, higher education facilities, and women's and men's clubs, is staffed by some 40 volunteers, all of whom have been widowed for more than two years.

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Friends or relatives of widowed persons often contact the volunteers, who then send out an introductory letter and follow up with a phone call. ''Some people just need to talk to somebody,'' says volunteer Bessie Ray. ''Other people may need to hear about community agencies where they can get help, or they may need the names of local lawyers who won't exploit their situation. Our role is not to do things for them, but to help them do things themselves.''

Volunteers stay in touch with widowed persons for a few months or for more than a year, depending on the individual's needs. ''We try to pull out gradually and leave them standing independently,'' says Mrs. Ray. ''At the end, you always say, 'If you need me, give me a buzz.' ''

Author Isabella Taves says one of the first problems she had to deal with when her husband passed on was a feeling of being excluded, of being a single woman in a ''couples'' society. The successes of the women's movement now have removed much of that social stigma, she says, but it still is important for women to make the decision to manage their own lives, independently of their families.

''It's important to understand that you can't lean on your children,'' she says. ''They're a comfort, especially if they're young enough to need care, because that's something you have to do, whether you feel like it or not. But you can't expect them to fill the rest of your life.

''In the workshops she teaches for widows in southern California, Ida Fisher says she often finds cases of well-intentioned older children who try to ''take over'' a parent's life. ''I've seen women who allowed their own best sense of what was right for them be overruled by children with professional interests,'' she explains. ''Attorneys and psychologists have convinced their parents to make decisions, based on academic research, that have resulted in problems.''It's good to use children as a sounding board,'' Mrs. Fisher adds, ''but you always have to turn back to yourself.''

Most specialists agree that widowed persons should put off making permanent decisions for at least a year. ''Often people seem to want to do something, and it's hard to ask them to sit still for a year,'' says Ruth Loewinsohn of The Widowed Persons Service. ''So we advise them that if they feel they have to make a decision, they make it a reversible one. We suggest that they rent their homes , instead of selling, or visit their grown children for three months, instead of moving in with them permanently.''

Some of the earliest decisions widows have to make involve money, and a number of recently published books offer step-by-step advice on such things as how to make investments, what to do about tax laws, and how to set up a budget. Says Ida Fisher of the women she has taught in her workshops:

''They are so excited when, instead of having an attorney do a simple transfer of property, they find they can do it on their own, without legal assistance.''

For more information about services available to widows nationwide and a free bibliography of recommended reading, contact The Widowed Persons Service, 1909 K Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20049.

Recently published books include the following:

Survival Handbook for Widows, by Ruth Loewinsohn. (Piscataway, N.J.: New Century.)

The Widow's Guide, by Isabella Taves. (New York: Schocken.)

The Widow's Guide to Life, by Ida Fisher and Byron Lane. (Englewood, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.)

The Widower, by Kohn and Kohn. (Boston: Beacon Press.)

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