Sandra O’Leary lost her husband in 2001. One year later and still grieving, O’Leary stepped out of herself and began gathering sisters of similar experience.
O’Leary plastered her Victoria neighbourhood with flyers advertising what she called A Widow’s Walk. She invited any woman who had lost her husband to join her at Mile 0 for a stroll. Four women, all recently widowed, showed up.
Since then, a Widow’s Walk has continued week after week, year after year in all weather. In total, about 200 women have walked at least once. Now about 32 are regular walkers. Similar walks have started in Sidney and Chilliwack
“The walk gave a lot of ladies a real anchor,” said Juanita Loeppky, now 74, who was not one of the first four walkers but was very close. “We are all really grateful to Sandra for starting A Widow’s Walk.”
Sandra O’Leary died September 22nd, 2015 in Victoria Hospice of cancer. She was 68. She leaves four grown children, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
O’Leary was born April 16, 1947, and spent her early years in Sault St. Marie, Ont. As a young woman, she moved to Toronto, where she met Arthur and the two were married in 1966.
Arthur initially worked for the Toronto School Board. But in 1980, the family packed everything into and on top of a Volkswagen Rabbit and drove to B.C. It had always been Sandra’s dream to live on the West Coast.
Finally settling in Victoria, Arthur worked at a variety of jobs, the last being at Gorge Auto Supply, now JB’s Auto Supplies.
The couple’s youngest daughter, Alison McQuarrie, now 42, said throughout her mom’s life, even after the death of Arthur at the age of 65, Sandra was a foster parent.
By the time she retired from fostering four years ago, she had provided homes to 75 foster kids, most of whom remain close.
But the biggest and most enduring relationship in O’Leary’s life was the one with Arthur, her husband.
“She never really got over him; he was it for her,” McQuarrie said in a telephone interview. “So I know the two of them are together now.”
For O’Leary, starting A Widow’s Walk filled two personal needs.
She needed to find other women, companions who would understand all she was going through. But it also filled O’Leary’s personal need to give to others, to be compassionate and share some empathy.
“She never found anybody else [to marry], that wasn’t her goal,” McQuarrie said.
“She just wanted to help other widows.”
Loeppky remembers O’Leary’s capacity for empathy just seemed to capture all the widows who showed up to walk and it kept many of them coming back.
“Every single woman in that widows’ group is grateful to Sandra, for starting the group and bringing them together,” she said. “It started friendships between people who would never have met otherwise.”
“It wasn’t really a counselling group with people wailing and crying and beating the breasts,” Loeppky said. “We would just talk about things and about how we felt.”
“And when I came back from the walks I would always feel really good,” she said.