‘Not my Mick’: What losing my husband taught me about grief

Family bond: Dr Olga Lavalle with her children Chloe, Jarred and Alex. Picture: Adam McLean
Family bond: Dr Olga Lavalle with her children Chloe, Jarred and Alex. Picture: Adam McLean

Does a psychologist find it easier to cope with grief because they know the theories behind it? Dr Olga Lavalle for one, had to throw her theories away when her husband died suddenly, writes Cydonee Mardon.

As a clinical psychologist Olga Lavalle is used to hearing people’s tales of grief.

It’s fair to say she is well equipped to listen, and offer practical tools to help manage the heartache.

But when her own heart was broken with one phone call, she had no idea how she was supposed to react in that moment.

It was a practical lesson in grief she never saw coming.

“Never in my wildest nightmare did I expect ‘until death do us part’ to come so early,” she said.

The confusion of her loss was like a knife plunging into her heart.

One phone call  from her brother in law while she was away at her young daughter’s basketball tournament sent her world into a spin.

And it never returned to normal – hence her search for her new normal.

Dr Lavalle’s husband of 17 years died of a heart attack while she and her daughter Chloe were out of town.

Mick and his brother were only meant to be at the Moruya racetrack for the day. They were meant to come back together. 

New Normal: Dr Olga Lavalle has written a book about the sudden loss of her husband Mick, above, who died from a heart attack three years ago.

New Normal: Dr Olga Lavalle has written a book about the sudden loss of her husband Mick, above, who died from a heart attack three years ago.

Their horse was scheduled to race and then they were due home.

Instead Mick’s brother was on the phone delivering the gut-wrenching news.

The rest is a blur of bouncing basketballs, hugs, noise, confusion and a desperate ride home to get to her other daughter Alex.

She knew Alex was home alone.

Her and Chloe had to get home.

Three years down the track, Dr Lavalle has found her new normal – and she is sharing her grief with the world.

She is pictured with her father-in-law Tony at Kembla Grange where a race was named in Mick's honour. Pictures: Adam McLean

She is pictured with her father-in-law Tony at Kembla Grange where a race was named in Mick's honour. Pictures: Adam McLean

She had made the decision to swim, not sink, and now felt better placed, with first-hand experience of grief, to show empathy to those who came to her for help. 

“I wrote the book to let other women now that I like them have suffered adversity,” she said.

“I want to help other young widows understand that what they experience and feel with grief is normal given that they have lost their partner or spouse or loved one,” she said.

“During my grief I never relied on the theories of grief, but decided to open myself up and experience grief for what it is.

Held at hand: Dr Lavalle's soon-to-be released book about grief.

Held at hand: Dr Lavalle's soon-to-be released book about grief.

“I wrote the book from a professional and personal perspective and I share with readers what I learnt about grief, how I coped, and how I have helped other widow’s cope.

“I do this in the hope that readers find a little peace as they grieve and uncover their new normal.”

Dr Lavalle believes everyone has a choice in what they do when faced with any form of adversity.

“I decided I was not going to let grief destroy me, but I was going to show my children that regardless of what life throws at us we have a choice in how we deal with adversity.

“And while we can’t control when someone dies we do choose the way we deal with grief.”

She still thinks a lot about the children being fatherless, especially the girls who were only 14 and 15 when their father died. “It’s hard to understand how a child feels and thinks when they have lost a parent.”

So to truly understand grief from their perspective, she asked Alex, Chloe and their brother Jarred if they would they write about their experience.  And they did.

Dr Lavalle’s own version of the untimely death of Mick Lavalle, and how it affected her and her family, took her eight months to write. 

“A widow is so busy in the lead up to the funeral and after, that she does not have time to grieve. So, with writing the book, it was my time to grieve alone.”

The hardest part was writing the chapter on helping children cope. But the beauty of Dr Lavalle’s book is that it comes from both a professional and personal viewpoint.

She cleverly weaves her professional psychologist’s voice with the voice of herself as a mother and widow to create a step by step guide. She helps manage the good days and the bad and helps the reader understand what children are going through and how to help and adjust. 

She has shared with Mercury readers an extract from her soon-to-be released book.

All I could hear was my staggered breathing between silent groans. I needed air. I needed to get out of there. The room was spinning as the sounds of basketballs, and excited crowds faded into the distance. Darkness threatened to swallow me whole.

I somehow managed to stumble down the seats and headed for the exit. Don't fall. I was vaguely aware of voices calling my name. "Olga, are you ok? What's wrong?" "This can't be happening!" I heard myself say to no-one.

The cool air outside didn’t help to relieve the pressure on my lungs. Panic, confusion. Where to go? What to do? Oh, God. This nightmare has to be a dream. It can't be real. Not MY Mick. All I could do is desperately remind myself "Breathe, Olga, Breathe." 

It’s shocking how quickly ‘life’ can knock the wind out of you, isn’t it? One minute I was enjoying my daughter’s basketball game, and the next I was desperately trying not to faint from grief and shock.

Like most girls, I’d grown up with the dream of meeting that someone special, getting married, having children, watching them grow up, and then becoming grandparents. 

I knew what I wanted, and up until that moment, I was living my dream.

For a preview of the book go to www.awidowsguidetogrief.com