Darla Erickson was strong for her husband, Scott Erickson, as he was dying.
Scott was an attorney in Telluride for 20 years, and after that, the county judge.
“He was well-known and really well liked,” Darla recalled. “He was a public person, but he was also incredibly private.” When he became ill, “It was hard for him, being in a small town” and not being able to continue being as active as he once was.
It was perhaps even more difficult having people see that he was not well.
“He was physically fit — a runner and a hiker and a skier and a biker. He did it all. And he wanted (the same) relationships with his friends. People would want to come by the house and visit, and I would have to say to them, ‘This is not a good time.’ I had to guard his privacy.”
Darla supported her husband, but she needed support, too.
“I’m more social,” she explained. At the same time that she was turning people away, “I was thinking, ‘I need my people.’”
Erickson may not have realized it, but she was experiencing grief, a complex process that starts with the knowledge that we are losing a loved one, and can last for years (Scott Erickson passed away in 2015). Grief is a spectrum, said Amiessa Jutten, a licensed clinical social worker and the bereavement coordinator at HopeWest, the hospice, palliative, and grief-support group serving Mesa, Delta, Montrose and Ouray County.
“We start feeling loss as soon as we know there’s a terminal illness. That something is going to change; that someone needs help.”
Nor does grief go away at a preset time, something Darla came to realize in the days and weeks following Scott’s passing.
“We’re a close knit community; when loss happens, we show up for the memorial and support each other with flowers and meals. But as time goes on,” she noticed, people began to drift away. “I’d approach them, because I thought they were avoiding me,” she said. “I think the community kind of shies away because they’ll make you cry. There’s nothing wrong with crying — it means you loved that person. I haven’t met a bereaved person yet who doesn’t want to hear stories about their loved one.”
Another one of the difficult parts about grief, she said, is the trying.
“We work so hard to make it look like we’re OK. You want to clean up and be presentable, and it’s important to do that — if we all just stayed in bed, that’s not honoring our loved ones, either. You think to yourself, and hope, that you’re doing well, and that everything’s fine and better and good. But there’s nothing quite as hard and devastating as this loss. And grieving is a much longer process” than one expects.
Today, Erickson says, “I’ve come to a place where I want to help others. In Telluride, it’s hard to find a support group for bereavement.”
So she decided to help start one.
“Michael Craft, our pastor at Alpine Chapel, has been so helpful to me,” she explained. “He was the head of a counseling center that helped people through divorce or grief. He said, ‘Darla, I think you’ll be really great at leading’” a grief-support group. “‘If you feel ready at some point, let me know.’”
The group’s first meeting is Sunday at 6:30 p.m. The six-week-long class “is Christian, but everyone is welcome,” she said. The course’s timing is deliberate, as is its title: “Surviving the Holidays.” Grief and loss are magnified “during those big anniversaries and birthdays because they revolve around you and your family. And Christmas is just so important: when you lose a loved one, it’s so apparent that he or she isn’t there. I have a few tips and tricks to help people get through this” (to learn more about the course, visit griefshare.org).
Erickson plans to lead another grief-support course in the New Year.
Bereavement coordinator Jutten, of HopeWest, says working through grief in a group is particularly helpful: “You get to be around others who’ve experienced loss,” she said. “They’ve been through the same thing as you. The shared experience helps. I see so many people who finish one of these classes,” which are typically six weeks or so in length, “and they find that they’ve established a bond. So they continue to get together and support each other.” (HopeWest uses a book entitled “Understanding Your Grief” by Alan Wolfelt in its bereavment groups.)
Jutten has also witnessed the converse: people who don’t “do the work of grief,” as she put it. “They may suppress it or stuff it down, and then it comes up later in life in different ways. You can get stuck in there. You want to practice what we call ‘intentional mourning’ — you meet the grief head-on and let it out of your body some way, through crying, writing, mindfulness, or just discussing.”
Erickson will focus on the latter. “A great part of it this is just sharing, and being heard. Talking about your loved one. I know people are hurting and suffering out there.”
Grieving and loss are universal, after all. And they can be overwhelming.
“So many people come up to me and say, ‘Darla, I don’t know what to do,’” she said. “I say, ‘Let’s figure it out together.’”
Aspen Chapel is located at 122 South Aspen St. in Telluride. The grief support class begins Sunday at 6:30 p.m.