We had the good fortune of connecting with Michele Neff Hernandez and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Michele, what’s the most important thing you’ve done for your children?
One life skill that I’ve worked to develop in my three kids is the ability to own their mistakes. This is one of those skills that is most effectively taught through example–which has meant that I’ve needed to be able to tell my kids when I have been wrong. In my early parenthood I thought I needed to have irrefutable answers to every question and that I must be the authority in every circumstance. What a collection of life experiences has taught me is that the need to be infallible is harmful to my relationship with my kids. By owning my mistakes, admitting when I am wrong and being willing to apologize for any harm I cause (intentional or unintentional), I confirm that being wrong sometimes is a part of life. We have the opportunity to learn so much from our mistakes, but only when we claim them. I am proud of the honest, loving relationship I’ve built with my now adult children, and I count learning to demonstrate that being wrong is not only okay, but normal, as a pivotal part of creating the bond we now enjoy.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
My role as the CEO and founder of a grassroots non-profit organization has taught me more than any other professional experience. What began as a tragic personal experience, the death of my thirty-nine year old husband in a cycling accident, became a passion for creating innovative programming to serve widowed people of all ages and from all walks of life. After my husband Phillip’s death, I desperately wanted to meet other widowed people to find out how they’d moved through the pain of their grief. Lacking a local community near me, I began a quest to find other widowed people and ask them a list of pressing questions to which I had not been able to find answers. How long do you wear your wedding ring? What do I do with my husband’s shoes? How can I comfort my grieving kids? Will we all survive this pain? These questions and 46 others formed the roadmap for every conversation I managed to schedule with any widowed person willing to speak with me. At the end of one year of these interviews I came away with 50 different answers to my 50 questions and the realization that what I was seeking wasn’t really specific answers, but rather a community. Fifteen years later, that community exists in the form of Soaring Spirits International. We offer exactly the community I sought, and through this work I’ve discovered a passion for nonprofit leadership. Soaring Spirits began as an idea on a napkin, grew into one online program run from my home office and step by step has become an organization serving over four million widowed people in 153 countries around the world. Diving into the nonprofit world included a steep learning curve. There were a million times when a lack of funding or staffing or energy made my goal feel impossible, but what kept me going (and still keeps me going today!) is the confirmation that community connections are a vital part of grief recovery and the building of personal resilience. Knowing that my dedication to this work will allow a newly widowed person to find their way into a supportive community packed with valuable resources and endless encouragement fuels my desire to show up for the hard work each day requires. Following my passion has helped Soaring Spirits serve over four million widowed people over the past fifteen years. Though I never would have dreamed of that reality in the early days of building this organization, I knew that we could make a difference. That belief has paved the way through every challenge.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I am a SoCal girl and love to head up the coast to Santa Barbara. My bestie and I would take a walk through the lovely downtown area, stop in for coffee at a local cafe, then choose a couple of wineries where we would while away the day sipping, chatting, laughing and enjoying the gorgeous California sunshine. The Santa Barbara night life is busy, the shopping is great, and I can’t wait until we make our way safely through the pandemic so that we can end the night at a local bar sipping cocktails side by side as we review the awesome day we shared.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I’d like to dedicate this Shoutout to the thousands of widowed people who have shared their hearts and their stories with me over the past fifteen years. The courage required to walk through the death of someone pivotal in your life and then create a new life for yourself which honors the person and the life that you miss is inspiring. My goal has always been to create a community of widowed people that would act as a safe space where those new to the experience could find a place to be understood. The generosity with which the widowed people I serve offer that understanding and comfort to others just entering this phase of life is incredible. There is an immediate kinships that brings people who share a life-altering experience together despite any other factor which might usually separate them. I’ve been honored and privileged to witness the transformation of so many broken hearts into mending hearts that are willing to support others as they begin their own healing. This Shoutout is in recognition of their courage, their compassion, their generosity and their resilience.
Linkedin: Michele Neff Hernandez
Michael Dare Becky Savell