From grief to gratitude

LIHUE — When Bruce Ten gave away 40 paintings that he’d been clinging to for the past six years, it wasn’t easy.

The artist who had created them was his late wife, Sherri Potts, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2009. But those paintings, he said, were triggers for his grief and he was ready to let them go.

Jeffrey Pears, bereavement care associate with Kauai Hospice, explained that from a theoretical standpoint, those paintings are what are called objects of affection.

“That’s what belonged to her, and what she created, and that gives us a sense of this is the closest I can get to her now,” Pears said. “To give those up was huge.”

The couple had known each other for 30 years, and Ten said Potts was the first ocean engineer in the United States.

“She was an unusual person,” Ten said. “She worked in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a spacecraft engineer and we were co-workers, and we were very much in love.”

They moved to Kauai 20 years ago from Los Angeles to change their lifestyle and retire. They’d made plans for what their life was going to look like in their old age.

“She died the day after Christmas while reading in bed and it was not something I would have expected,” Ten said.

His history with Wilcox Memorial Hospital, where Potts was taken, helped Ten through the next 24 hours.

“Her body was just being kept alive by machines and it was a very surreal experience for me,” Ten said. “But knowing those doctors and nurses as former co-workers gave me some kind of a foundation.”

It took three years for Ten to make his way to Kauai Hospice, which offers free bereavement counseling programs for people going through grief.

“For me, I was remarried and I found that I still hadn’t fully completed my first relationship,” Ten said. “And I found I needed to address these issues of grief in a different way.”

Ten said it’s not easy talking with others about the loss of his wife, especially with those who knew her. It was a relief for him to be able to talk to people who had been through a similar situation, but also it was good for him to help others as well.

“I think it was supporting other people who had been through the loss that was helpful,” Ten said. “It didn’t diminish how I felt — it’s a long process — but it helped.”

Robert Purdue, who lost his 23-year-old son Bruce in a car accident in 2012, said he found his way to the grief groups at Kauai Hospice because he thought it’d be good for his wife. But he found himself finally being able to cry over his loss after that first session.

“We wrote letters to our loved ones and I finally was able to cry,” Purdue said. “Tears are so healing and it’s so good to be able to talk with people who have been there.”

Jim Jung lost his wife of 35 years to a glioblastoma, which is a fast-growing brain tumor, a little more than 10 years ago.

Jung said he spent about eight years in the anger stage of the five stages of grief before he found Kauai Hospice and went through counseling with Pears.

“It’s a roller coaster and you still have your highs and lows,” Jung said. “But what I found helps me is being of service to others and connecting with people that have been there. Also I became a Buddhist, and learning the path to enlightenment has helped me.”

Kauai Hospice, which has been on island for 33 years and employs around 30 people, is a nonprofit organization that serves those who have been given six months or less to live, if their illness takes the natural progression.

But its role extends beyond those with a terminal illness and their families — anyone who is grieving the loss of a loved one is welcome to attend one of the grief groups.

The hospice also puts on community candle-lighting events; horseback-riding trips for those who are grieving; and a traditional music program that provides live music for hospice events. Musicians and choirs are available for in-home visits as well.

“I didn’t even really know that hospice offered anything like this until we started going,” Purdue said. “It’s healing and they give you good tools to use.”

Jung said going to grief counseling changed his outlook from anger to gratefulness.

“Jim often says that it’s a road from grief to gratitude,” Pears said.

“And I’m still on that road,” Jung added. “It’ll never be the same as it was.”

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