Editor’s note: The photo caption has been corrected to identify the Wiard brothers properly.
It’s called compounded complicated grief — when one loss follows another. And another. When a person doesn’t have time to process the first shattering before the next one happens.
At the time, Ted Wiard, now a licensed clinical therapist and certified grief counselor, didn’t know there was a term for what he was experiencing. A resident of Taos, N. M., Wiard’s only connections to Homer, were his two brothers, Rob and Richard. Rob and his wife, Annie, were full-time residents. Richard, his younger brother, was there for the fishing season.
It began with the F/V Legend. In April of 1989, Wiard’s mom called him with news from Rob. A perfect storm had capsized the fishing vessel in southwest Cook Inlet. Out of four crewmembers, Richard’s body was the only one recovered.
Four years later it was Leslie, Wiard’s high school sweetheart, wife and mother of their two daughters. After battling cancer for two years, she was gone as well.
A tennis coach and fifth-grade teacher, Wiard began the job of raising his 6- and 9-year-old daughters alone. Then there was the last shattering.
In 1996 he received an urgent phone call to come to the hospital. His daughter, Keri, was in critical condition. The car she was riding in had been struck by a garbage truck. Her sister, Amy, and Wiard’s mother-in-law had been killed instantly. Keri died the next day.
“The amazing thing … is we all have loss,” said Wiard, sitting at Rob’s kitchen table, overlooking Kachemak Bay.
Wiard spent four days in Homer in August to connect with his family — and to give back to a community he said he will always be grateful for.
A frequent speaker at hospices and drug and alcohol treatment centers in the states, Wiard told his family he would be in Sitka to speak at a center. Annie, his sister-in-law, contacted Hospice of Homer to see if he could make a detour and speak in Homer as well.
Darlene Hildebrand, director of Hospice of Homer, said “yes” and approximately 40 people attended Wiard’s community talk on conscious grieving — how expressing grief opens hearts to an expanded way of life. He also spoke to hospice volunteers, thanking them for their service to others.
Hildebrand said by email that Wiard invited attendees of the talk to honor all types of grief — not just the death of a loved one.
A divorce, the loss of innocence, aging, loss of a job — Wiard shared that individuals must keep processing these losses in order to stay connected to the joy of living, rather than being caught in unresolved wounds.
“The impact of Ted’s talk went beyond his knowledge and expertise,” Hildebrand wrote. “The real power of his talk lay in his authenticity and heart. He talked of finding a place of safety where we can begin to approach, touch and process deep grief — to find a ‘cove’ of compassion in which to anchor. He modeled that ‘cove’ in his talk.”
A month after the loss of his daughters, Wiard came to Homer for the first time.
“This was one of the major spots that said ‘Here, you’re held,’” he said.
Rob and Annie and their family welcomed him in, and Homer is where he began the healing process — starting with Richard’s death at sea seven years earlier. Wiard said that he needed to see the plaque with Richard’s name at the Seafarer’s Memorial, and go out on the waters that had ended his younger brother’s life.
“By coming here I was able to start to decipher different losses…this was the start of the swells getting smaller,” he said.
That was the beginning, but Wiard said he still floundered around for about a year, even checking himself into a treatment center for drugs and alcohol — although he didn’t do either.
He said he had lost his drug of choice, though — his children — and there was no way to get another hit of the high of having them in his life. He craved them daily, and said he wanted to die for just one more hug, one more giggle, one more second of their physical presence.
“I wanted to go join my family,” he said.
Which was his other addiction — wanting to die, to get rid of the excruciating agony. Those thoughts became a kind of sedative to distract him from the painful truth that his brother, wife, mother-in-law and daughters had died. And he was shattered.
“I needed a place to go and try to heal,” he said. “I was willing to give life one last chance before I truly gave up … I needed to have safe time to re-find me.”
In re-finding himself, Wiard went on to become a minister and a counselor. He met his wife, Marcella, at ministerial school and together they operate their own treatment center, Golden Willow Retreat, in Taos. The nonprofit retreat focuses on helping others dealing with grief, loss, trauma and recovery.
Although many people want to help others, Wiard said they must deal with their own losses first.
Then, by allowing a person to share their story — without the listener taking it on as their own — they can hear, value and validate the loss.
Loss is an amputation, said Wiard, and a person with an amputation is going to feel awkward. He notes that people with a loss need to know they’re not sick, they’re not crazy and they’re not alone.
“When we have a loss we lose our illusion of safety,” he said.
With a loss, a person must let go of the future they had envisioned, because it has changed. Their definition of themselves also dies with each loss.
In an age of speed, where so many things are instant, Wiard said that society has been trying to speed up the grief process — but emotions don’t work the same way as technology.
“Grief doesn’t have a measuring stick or a timeline,” he said, adding that people need to be allowed to be sad for however long they need.
If a loss is repressed or confined, Wiard said that pathways within the brain shut down, leaving people in a confused state of anxiety and lethargy.
Often, people are afraid to “do grief” because they think they’re supposed to forget their own story — or that they are supposed to be fine when they really are not. Instead, Wiard describes grief as the bridge that allows a person to rebuild their life after a loss.
“In the midst of a loss, we kind of need to tell our story until we’re complete,” he said, adding that by doing so, the cognitive and emotional world find equilibrium.
Wiard is still telling his story — he’s working on a book that he hopes to finish in the next couple of years — and encouraging people to live each moment they have with gratitude. By doing so, he said they might experience an even higher quality of life than the one they had before the loss.
“It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t do anything to have my girls for one more second,” he said.
Toni Ross is a Homer writer.
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For more information on Wiard’s retreat, visit goldenwillowretreat.com. “Witnessing Ted: The Journey to Potential Through Grief and Loss,” by Carol Poteat with Ted Wiard, is available at Amazon.com.
of Homer Events:
Drop-in Bereavement Group is every Tuesday, 3 p.m. in the Hospice of Homer conference room.
Annual Training for Direct Care Volunteers begins Oct. 3; 32-hour training held during the month of October. Attendance at all sessions is required. Class size is limited and registration required.
Annual Membership Drive: Hospice is over halfway toward a $30,000 goal. If you haven’t renewed your membership or would like to make an additional donation, now is the time.
Art Raffle: Mary Frische and Tom Collopy of Wild North Photography, have donated a photograph with a value of $500 for the raffle. Tickets are $5 or five for $20. The drawing is Nov. 16.
Gallery Concert: In partnership with Homer Council on the Arts. Nov. 13, 7:30 p.m. at Homer Council on the Arts. “Work in Progress” will play folk music with a theme of love and loss.
Annual Preparing for the Holidays Fundraiser: Nov. 14. 6:30 – 9:30 p.m. at Wasabi’s Restaurant. Food and wine, music and auctions.
Call For Art : In partnership with HCOA. November Gallery Exhibit at HCOA Looking for artwork that represents the experience of loss. Contact HCOA for details.