Ted Wiard knows grief. He’s suffered through the worst and emerged with a commitment to help others survive loss through grief counseling and through the Golden Willow Retreat he founded in Taos. The Monday morning after the June 28 crash that left four teens dead, Wiard helped Santa Fe Preparatory and Monte del Sol schools with one of the most emotionally challenging weeks in the community’s history.
SFR: You experienced great tragedy before you became a grief counselor?
TW: That’s true. Over a six-year period, first my brother died in a shipwreck up in Alaska and then, soon after that, my wife had cancer and then she died from that cancer two years later. A couple of years after that, my two daughters and my mother-in-law died in a car crash. I found myself thoroughly stripped. I traveled around the world trying to figure out my life, who I was and if I should even stay on this planet.
How did you get through it?
I actually went to a treatment center for alcohol and drugs even though I didn’t do either and, in those 28 days, I was able to start to heal and find myself. While I was there I wondered why someone needed to be of a certain religion or be an addict in order to receive treatment. Why couldn’t they just say, ‘I’m sad and I have loss’? That was the motivation behind starting the retreat.
So many people were affected by these deaths. Is community grief different from personal grief?
The ripple effect—or even tidal wave—was so huge it went from individual to family to school to community to actually the nation. I received Facebook messages from people in Virginia and New York City who were affected from hearing about this in the news. Fear is such an enormous part of this because the illusion of safety is shattered, and we all feel like we’re in a free fall. There’s something called vicarious trauma, where all of a sudden people are imagining, ‘What if this happened to my child’ or ‘What if this happened in my world?’ All these different levels of grief and loss and trauma affect an entire community, no matter how large that community is.
I imagine it’s not uniform across the community.
Everyone has an expectation that everyone is doing it exactly the same, and that’s not true. There’s no timeline for the emotional healing process, and people will be going through that at different times. There’s also no measuring scale. This is a difficult piece because some people will say to others, ‘Well, you didn’t really know him’ or ‘You weren’t their parent.’ Grief needs to be expressed in a healthy manner and remembering that is just huge. Also, young people process grief very differently from adults. What happens quite often is adults ask them to express their grief, but a youngster may not have the words for it and begin to think, ‘I must be doing this wrong.’ Young people grieve at wherever they are in their emotional maturity.
In our reporting, we’ve noticed some kids with feelings of violence and revenge. Where do those feelings originate?
We find there’s nothing we can do with the pain and we can’t fix the situation. That frustration builds to anger, and so we want to lash out just so we’re doing something with this overwhelming volcano of grief.
How do you mitigate those feelings?
Quite often I’ll switch the word ‘anger’ to ‘protest.’ For example, ‘This is wrong. This should not be this way, so I’m protesting.’ Now, if we take our time instead of reacting and causing new grief, we can transform that anger into something productive that actually helps society in the whole. Then we’re being of service, which helps heal our wounds.
Tell me about the other side of the equation—the mother of the accused drunk driver.
There is no one from this that’s not going to have grief and loss. Everybody’s life is either gone or what they knew as their life has died, and they’re having to rebuild.