The Wide World of Grief

Colorado has become one of the country's hubs for teaching, and learning, how to feel bad.

The Center for Loss and Life Transition sits on a picturesque ridge on the outskirts of Fort Collins. The dirt road leading to it would be tough to negotiate for anyone not driving a tank; there are no less than four sharp switchbacks, and potholes large enough to lose a microwave oven in. But those fortunate enough to make it to the top are rewarded for their efforts by a spectacular view of Horsetooth Reservoir and the city beyond, observable from a series of structures that quietly echo the natural beauty of the surroundings.

The founder of this development, Alan Wolfelt, lives on the ridge, too, residing in a palatial home near a pair of charming, hexagonal gazebos, one of which is fronted by a small, painted figurine of Little Bo Peep crying over her lost sheep. These accoutrements are linked by a wooden walkway lined with what initially appear to be lecterns; in actuality, they're "information stations" containing glass-covered pages that impart facts about the flora, fauna, climate and geology of the site. But all paths eventually lead to the center itself, a multilevel, hexagon-shaped monument to the nurturing of the human spirit.

Welcome to the complex that grief built.

According to Wolfelt, a brisk, remarkably intense man of 46 with a taut, compact frame, a penetrating gaze and the sweeping hairstyle of a TV newscaster, the building was originally the swinging bachelor pad of an English playboy slumming in the States. But the reconfiguring and redesigning overseen by Wolfelt, who bought the property in the mid-'80s, eradicated every last bit of hedonism from its walls, transforming the edifice into a mini-campus that practically oozes benevolence. "People feel better just being here," Wolfelt says, and after a trip to the "eagle's nest," a glass-enclosed room capping the center, few would argue with him.

On this day, Wolfelt is hosting a conference called "Music, Meditation and Memories," a retreat for bereavement caregivers described in the center's catalogue of educational seminars as providing "natural medicine for soul-starvation" via "healing memory rituals" and regular "periods of solitude and reflection." The course is available only to people who've completed preliminary programs that are offered at the center roughly once a month for a week at a time; learners receive continuing-education units through Colorado State University's Department of Educational Outreach for attending the classes, with five sessions earning them a certificate in "death and grief studies." Thirteen professionals from across the U.S. are taking advantage of this opportunity to join Wolfelt for happenings such as the next morning's scheduled sunrise observance, which will ritually greet the coming dawn. Wolfelt says, "My philosophy is, when words are inadequate, have ceremony." Tuition for the seminar is $695, but breakfasts, lunches and materials are thrown in.

Students are also taking part in lectures and discussions on the center's second floor, where each participant has his own desk distinguished by a name tag, a jar of M&Ms and, conveniently, a personal box of tissues. Their chairs face a fireplace over which is mounted an illustration titled "Wolfelt's Grief Gardening Model." It depicts a route through agony that takes sufferers past dangerous areas -- one is marked "weed patch," another "nature of death" -- with stops that encourage them to "acknowledge reality" and "develop new self-identity." Elsewhere in the room, a poster delineates "My Grief Rights," which include:

I have the right to have my own unique feelings about the death... I have the right to need other people to help me with my grief... I have the right to try to figure out why the person I love died...This graphic and others on similar themes are found in a series of placards that Wolfelt has produced to get the attention of mourners who may be reluctant to acknowledge their struggles; they can be found in funeral homes from sea to shining sea. In addition, Wolfelt has written more than twenty books published by his own company, Companion Press, including The Journey Through Grief: Reflections on Healing, Healing the Bereaved Child and How I Feel: A Coloring Book for Grieving Children, as well as a staggering number of pamphlets on seemingly every conceivable aspect of anguish, ranging from Helping Yourself Live When You Are Seriously Ill to Helping Yourself Live When You Are Dying. And as befits someone who's a nationally acknowledged expert in his field, he travels all over North America (he has a branch office in Toronto) giving grief seminars. He's on tour as frequently as a rock star with a new album: Next week Pennsylvania, Kentucky the week after, then Maryland, Rhode Island -- and the road goes on.

To his credit, Wolfelt doesn't pretend that his organization is a nonprofit: He's entrepreneurial enough to have ordered up a nice variety of Center for Loss clothing; logo-imprinted T-shirts go for $20 apiece, and sweatshirts and polo shirts are available for $30. Yet he gives not the slightest indication that he's anything other than completely sincere in his desire to assist folks whose sadness, he believes, is capable of absolutely obliterating their lives. Sitting in the center's office, which contains a calendar showing his schedule for the next year-plus, a vast collection of toys highlighted by a bike-riding E.T., and a frowning-clown painting by the late comedian Red Skelton, he says, "We impact thousands each year, and I couldn't be prouder."

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