ON A DRAGONFLY'S WINGS: Grief counselor has firsthand experience with loss, recovery after losing wife and daughter

Emmalee Havertz smiles in a happier moment during a family portrait session. The 9-year-old passed...
Emmalee Havertz smiles in a happier moment during a family portrait session.
Story by Amy Nicholson
(Standard-Examiner correspondent)
Mon, Dec 3, 2012
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Nine-year-old Emmalee Havertz hated bugs and normally tried to swat them away, but on a memorable day in the fall of 2009, a dragonfly tickled her head with its wings — and it made her smile.

Her father, Steve Havertz, of Fruit Heights, remembers the occasion with clarity.

Emmalee had been suffering from a rare form of cancer for nearly a year. She was struggling through a family portrait photo session, crying because she didn’t feel well. Havertz was worried that they wouldn’t get any pictures with young Emmalee smiling, and he was relieved when the dragonfly brightened her day.

They were the last photos the family had taken together before Emmalee passed away on Oct. 1, 2009.

As Havertz reflected on the experience and learned more about dragonflies, the insect became a metaphor for his daughter’s short but energetic life. He wrote and later published the book “Dragonfly Wings for Emmalee,” a story about her life and how he dealt with the grief that followed in the wake of her death.

A licensed therapist who recently left his practice to concentrate on seminars and training for grief counselors and on publishing, Havertz is no stranger to loss.

After years of counseling patients through the grief process, in 2003 Havertz lost his wife Camille to a struggle with bipolar disorder.

He and Camille met in high school, married in 1988 and had two children, Matthew, now 20, and Krystal, now 18. In 2000, they adopted Emmalee.

Camille’s passing left Havertz a single father of three kids, age 11, 9 and 3 at the time.

“My main focus was the kids, so I don’t think I had time to really grieve,” he said of his wife’s passing.

In 2005, Havertz married Kara and they now have a 2-year-old son, Carston, together. They found out about Emmalee’s cancer in the fall of 2008, and Havertz began a whole new round of grief.

But this time, he allowed himself to go through the motions and learn and grow from the experience.

“That is when it really hit me that what I was doing as a counselor wasn’t really helpful,” Havertz said.

A flexible therapy

He had previously used Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ model of the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — to counsel his patients. But, as he mourned the loss of his daughter, Havertz found that his emotions were broader and more intense.

Sometimes they just didn’t fit the model.

“I had times where the loss of Emmalee would take my breath away,” he said.

Even as a trained professional, his grief was so overwhelming it made him wonder if he was going crazy, Havertz said.

Based on his experiences while working through the days, weeks and months following Emmalee’s death, Havertz developed a new style of helping people grieve.

Rather than telling patients what they are going to experience, he learned to let them talk about what they were feeling and then counseled them through each challenge.

Just like a patient asks a medical doctor for a prognosis on recovery when they undergo a surgery, Havertz said, his clients wanted to know how long it will be before they feel better. He told them honestly, “I don’t know.”

Unlike a medical recovery, it is impossible to average feelings and put a time limit on them, he said. “Everyone experiences grief to some degree, but people react differently.”

Importance of support

During the recovery period after a loss, there are support groups that can help, such as the ones offered by A Center for Grieving Children and Adults in Ogden.

“I would recommend for them to come to a center like ours,” said Barbara Norris, executive director of the center, which offers free support groups for people dealing with death, divorce, separation, foster care and anticipatory grief. There are age-specific groups for children as young as 3 years old.

Havertz said research supports the idea that people who don’t work through their feelings of grief begin to experience poor physical health and can fall into addictive behaviors.

“There is a saying that ‘Feeling is healing’ and I think there is truth to that,” he said.

Loss, such as the passing of a loved one, said Havertz, creates a hole inside a person.

“The ultimate goal is to learn to adjust to having a piece of you that is missing. There are triggers, such as smells, sights and sounds, that can bring you back into that hole. But, you have to learn to keep climbing out,” he said.

At the holidays

Holidays, with their associated traditions, often act as triggers for people who are grieving.

Havertz admits that while Halloween was always one of his favorite holidays, it is now difficult since it is close to the anniversary of Emmalee’s passing.

He could not bring himself to carve pumpkins for the first two years, even though it is an activity he previously enjoyed. And, his family spent their first Christmas without Emmalee in a hotel room.

He said it is OK to forgo long-standing traditions if they are too painful.

“People can make new traditions to avoid depressing memories,” Havertz said. And sometimes, traditions to honor the loved one lost, such as hanging up an ornament in their memory, can help.

Beverley Allred, of Ogden, lost her husband to cancer last November.

She said continuing traditions helps her stay positive. “I always enjoyed decorating for the holidays with my husband. I feel like I need to make that effort and not sit around feeling sorry for myself,” Allred said.

For her, keeping the tradition is a way to remember the good times.

“That doesn’t mean I’m not feeling sad, but he would want me to do it,” Allred said.

Losing her husband brought back the grief of also losing her mother when Allred was 5, as well as her stepmother and a sister — all to cancer.

“In the beginning, I felt picked on. But it has helped to think of the loved ones I still have and to draw on the support of community and friends,” she said.

Warning signs

If you or a loved one are suffering, Havertz said, it is important to look for warning signs such as indulging in addictive behaviors, sleeping too much, overeating, undereating, or having thoughts of death and suicide.

Talking or journaling can help, Havertz said, but he cautions against wallowing in the negative, which can only make things worse.

First and foremost, he said, it is important to acknowledge that grief triggers exist and to be prepared for them. If possible, it is best to avoid them altogether. If that is not possible, he recommends having a plan to deal with the triggers before they happen.

Although Havertz has learned a lot and come a long way through the grieving process since losing his daughter, he misses her every day.

This year, he decided to bring back pumpkin carving so that his young son can enjoy the tradition. And, they now enjoy their Christmas traditions at home.

“It’s OK if it takes time to get back to normal traditions,” he said.

 

DEALING WITH GRIEF

Warning signs:

  • • Overindulging in behaviors such as parties or drinking
  • • Sleeping too much
  • • Eating too much or too little
  • • Engaging in addictive behaviors
  • • Thoughts of death or suicide

What to try:

  • • Talk to friends about what you are feeling
  • • Focus on the positive memories and avoid wallowing in the negative
  • • Be aware of situations that trigger your grief and avoid them
  • • Suspend or replace traditions that make you feel sad
  • • Try a new tradition that honors a lost loved one
  • • Contact a professional if nothing else helps
RESOURCES

Check with your local hospital or mortuary for support groups and classes. Here’s a sampling of resources:

• Leavitt’s Mortuary, 836 36th St., Ogden

801-394-5556

Support groups

• Myers Mortuary, 845 Washington Blvd., Ogden

801-399-5613

Support groups and resource library

• A Center for Grieving Children and Adults, 1708 E. 5550 South, No. 18, South Ogden

801-476-1127, www.familysummit.com

Support groups for all ages

 

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