HE MISSES HER so much that sometimes he will go to their closet and hug her dresses, wrapping his arms around the empty cloth, searching for the smell of her. Well-meaning friends, more full of advice than condolences, tell him him that it's time now for him to get rid of his wife's clothes. But the widower isn't ready yet.

Mike Kolovich is a widower, too, so he knows about well-meaning friends. He knows there are no schedules for grieving. When he met the man who hugs his wife's dresses, he didn't offer any advice at all. Kolovich just listened, while the man talked for hours about his loneliness.Kolovich is a volunteer with the Widowed Persons Service, a one-on-one outreach program that hooks up newly bereaved widows and widowers with women and men who have already lived with their loss for at least 18 months.

The program, co-sponsored by the American Association of Retired Persons, operates in more than 200 communities but came to the Salt Lake area just last summer.

The Widowed Persons Service is currently looking for new volunteers. "We need people who have already reconciled their own grief," says grief counselor Shirley Rossa.

Kolovich's wife died nearly four years ago. "Sometimes it's still a struggle," he says, but time and his own "grief work" have helped him, he says.

He is sitting in his living room in Holladay. The hearth is filled with "Jingle Bell" poinsettias, Shirley Kolovich's favorite. She died of cancer; a slow death that gave her husband a head start on grieving but still didn't prepare him for how lost he would feel.

The couple's three children miss Shirley, too. But it's a different kind of loss, says Kolovich, which is why widows and widowers need peers for their support. These are people who have faced the death of a spouse - an intimate best friend, a partner for life - and have lived through it.

Myrna Harris' husband died three years ago at age 58. Their sons, says Harris, "were sympathetic to a point" but expected her to get on with her life after a couple of months. Then she tried so hard to be cheerful around them that they soon assumed she was over the loss.

These days, Harris tries to be the kind of peer support she needed then. She starts each day with a look at the obituaries, jotting down the names of new widows and widowers. She forwards these to Colleen Thelen, volunteer coordinator for the Widowed Persons Service, who will send them a card and arrange for a follow-up phone call.

All volunteers have gone through a 15-hour training program before they are hooked up with a new widow or widower. The most important lesson, say those who have been through the training, is the value of silence.

"I learned you've really got to listen to a person's heart when they've lost someone," says volunteer Robb Benns Sr.

Benns, 62, lost his wife abruptly from a brain aneurysm on a November night three years ago. They had been together 36 years. "Even more if you count the courting years," says Benns, who still struggles with facing - rather than running from - his grief.

Not long before Bernice died, Benns had taken early retirement from his job at the Tooele Army Depot. Bernice was planning to retire from her job with the Board of Education so they could travel in their new van.

"She was my backbone," he says about his wife. After she died, he realized he hardly even knew his way on the freeway because it was Bernice who always navigated.

After her death, he took a minimum wage janitorial job at the University of Utah just to get away from himself, he says. But he has also learned how to remember Bernice in healing ways.

Men are hard to talk with about the death of a spouse, hard even to plan a visit with, but there are tricks, Benns says. A man in the depths of grief will likely have a kitchen table covered with dirty coffee cups. So Benns will suggest dinner at a restaurant or a trip to the hardware store.

Benns' own grief work has included several notebooks full of letters to Bernice and to God and a photo album of Bernice and their eight children.

What would have really helped during the first awful year, he says, would have been another widower to commiserate with.

Like other widowed spouses, Benns knows that the holidays are hard and that the period after Christmas can be even harder - the prospect of a month of gray January days lying in wait, ready to pounce and depress.