An ocean of sorrow

People deal with grief in different ways. Simple solutions don’t

It had been two years since the death of her husband of 49
years, when Betty Auchard found she was ready to move on.
Auchard hadn’t been expecting to meet anyone when she went
carpet shopping, but there he was: The salesman of her dreams.
It had been two years since the death of her husband of 49 years, when Betty Auchard found she was ready to move on.

Auchard hadn’t been expecting to meet anyone when she went carpet shopping, but there he was: The salesman of her dreams.

All the way home, Auchard couldn’t stop smiling.

She would have to look really, really good, she decided, when she went back to look at samples the next day.

The Betty Auchard driving home that day was not the same woman who had been behind the wheel two years earlier.

After losing her husband to cancer, she’d found herself in a cloud of grief, the temporary depression that nearly everyone will face at some point in life when confronted with the death of a loved one.

Time to cry

Getting through that cloud takes time, but our culture frequently doesn’t allow for grief, according to Eileen Walsh, volunteer coordinator for the Centre for Living with Dying, a program of the Bill Wilson Center located in Santa Clara.

“The traditional bereavement leave is three days in a corporation,” said Walsh. “That’s for a spouse or family, so good luck if your best friend dies. Your report is due on Monday with no place to report that you can hardly get out of bed.”

Instead, grievers often encounter platitudes, said Walsh.

“People say things like, ‘You’re young, you can find someone else,’ or ‘You’re young, you can have another baby,’ or they try to comfort people by saying things like ‘Your mother lived a really long life,'” said Walsh.

Simple answers don’t work for everyone, though, said Barry Goldman-Hall, clinical director for Community Solutions in Morgan Hill.

“I think if we looked at 100 people, some slice of humanity that was dealing with grief, there would be some general similarities, but there are a number of variables that will affect the level and type of grief someone experiences.”

No Mr. Fix-it

One of the biggest problems Walsh sees is the attempt by loved ones and outsiders to fix grief, just as our task-oriented society attempts to fix any manner of other issues, with a timeline and a game plan.

“We ask questions,” said Walsh who gave an example of the way she and the Centre’s other volunteers talk to clients. “(If someone has lost an infant) I say, ‘Tell me, what’s the hardest part? What hurts the most? Tell me about the baby.’ That’s where the healing comes, is in telling the story and sharing the feelings. When someone has a broken heart, it’s broken, and we cannot fix it, but we can be present.”

Just being there is the real key to helping someone heal, said Walsh. Allow them to talk or think of other things that you might be able to do if you know someone who is experiencing grief, said Goldman-Hall.

“This is not a pathological area or something that needs medication,” said Goldman-Hall. “It’s normal, so offer whatever is needed.”

Better yet, said Goldman-Hall, just do it.

“Often times, people who are in grief will just say no sort of automatically,” he said. “So bring over a casserole. Bring over some sandwiches or just start cleaning the house. Think of what you’d like someone to do for you and do it without expecting anything back.”

Not every hint of progress is meant to go forward, but encourage loved ones when they do start to come back out of their shell, said Goldman-Hall.

Redemption song

After her husband’s death, Auchard had been numb. It was only after the funeral was over, after the guests were gone that she really felt his loss.

But the carpet man had suddenly changed that. Auchard got her first pedicure, bought a toe ring and made sure she was looking her best, but nothing came of the trip to the carpet store except a year-long remodeling project. That was just as well; she had other things to do.

Auchard, a humorist, speaker, writer and founding member of the Gilroy Writing Project, penned the book, “Dancing in my Nightgown,” which has garnered praise as a finalist for the 2005 Independent Publishers Awards.

She lectured all over the Pacific Northwest. She spoke with countless widows, all of whom had stories of grief and redemption to share.

“It’s a roller coaster,” Walsh said of grief, “a wave that comes and picks you up and turns you around, and it comes and goes not in stages, but in moments, in hours, in days.”

The ebb and flow of grief is most frequently tied to memory, said Walsh. A scent, a flower or a feeling of being cold or hot can trigger it just as readily as the sight of someone familiar or the sound of a favorite song.

“Grief kind of erupts out of nowhere sometimes and other times it’s kind of obvious – anniversaries, birthdays, holidays,” said Walsh.

The feeling’s effects can be mitigated when loved ones have the chance to prepare for a death, but the more surprising the loss, the more denial is generally associated with the event, said Goldman-Hall.

“Denial is one of the ways we have to protect ourselves, and one of the most traumatic effects of a sudden death is that we don’t have that time to prepare,” said Goldman-Hall. “We don’t get to say good-bye. It’s that universal experience of not being able to finish the process, not getting to say what you wish you’d said, and most deaths are sort of like that.”

When the cut is too deep

Unlike the saying, time does not heal all wounds. Some sufferers are prone to deal with their grief in a more drawn-out fashion while others never really get over it at all. Women are more able to move past a major loss than men in most cases, Goldman-Hall has observed over the years.

“Women much more easily access their emotions and in those kinds of situations, I think that’s really a benefit,” said Goldman-Hall. “Men don’t affiliate as much. They don’t use their friends, and they are much more likely to isolate themselves. I wouldn’t say it’s harder on men, but generally it’s harder for them to reach out.”

With the help of friends and family members, Auchard moved past the cloud that enveloped her after her husband’s death.

“The down times come less frequently if you do your grief work (such as counseling, support groups and reading),” said Auchard. “They’re not as painful. They’re not as intense, and all of a sudden you realize, ‘Gee. I’ve come a long way.’ But a lot of people can’t stand the fact that they still ache, and they still hurt, and they still feel bad.”

Auchard is out to find the men out there who are ready to move on, too.

“For 14 months, I was online dating, and I had a wonderful time,” said Auchard, who had never dated or lived outside of her parents’ home before she married at age 19. “I felt like I was 18 again, learning to date people and how to deal with people who were not right.”

In the world of online dating, her criteria were strict. If the man initiated contact, she would review his photo, and if he was smiling she’d consider reading up on him. There would be no talk of marriage, and if any man was looking for that, he’d soon be running in the opposite direction, she said.

Auchard is patient, and that is one thing most grief sufferers and their colleagues are not.

“I grew up in the Jewish culture, and they basically give you a year,” said Goldman-Hall. “I think this Western culture has an expectation that people will get over these things faster than they do, but the grief process is about letting people mourn and feel empty.”

It is normal, said Goldman-Hall, for spouses to hear voices, have vivid dreams or mentally wait for their loved ones to walk through the front door. And it is normal for grief to last a long time – months, years or even a lifetime.

“With older adults we see the phenomenon where if one spouse goes, the other one goes pretty quickly,” said Goldman-Hall. “I think that’s part of the grieving process. The loss is unbearable, and people who have been married 40, 50, 60 years are sometimes so much a couple that they can’t function separately.”

For Auchard, the affair of the carpet man did not work out. Though she made eyes at him for more than a year, nothing came of the exchange except a complete remodeling job. Still, her romantic side has not been extinguished.

“Down deep, I do hope I meet someone,” said Auchard. “I want him to like his home as much as I like mine. I really don’t think I want to get married again, but I do hope I meet someone.”

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