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A full life emptied by grief, refilled by living

Former Hollywood and European movie-TV actress Susanne Severeid has been a widow for five years, a tragedy that turned her life upside-down and triggered a long journey out of grief, as detailed in her new book, “When Someone You Love is Dying.”

A one-time modeling beauty and show-presenter — typed as a “wholesome California girl” — Ashland resident Severeid has set a new life course helping others re-start their lives after the inevitable passing of loved ones.

“I lost a wonderful man, a 34-year life partner and I’m far enough along the path of grief to be grateful instead of devastated,” said Severeid, as she celebrated the 18th birthday recently of her son, Pablo van Renterghem, a senior at Ashland High School.

Her book, illustrated with photos by her son, begins, “Uncertainty becomes the new name of the game. A diagnosis, illness or tragic event can turn your world upside-down. The future feels very frightening. There is nothing concrete, no answers or guarantees anymore. And suddenly, you are tumbling down the rabbit hole with nothing to hold onto.”

Severeid talks of “the cliff” and thoughts of finding one to jump from — but what saved her and helped make her whole again?

Good memories of her beloved, a strong circle of caring friends and, she says, a good sense of humor.

“I don’t think I’d be standing here talking, much less laughing, but Ashland is such an amazing, healing place — and such an amazing place for Pablo to go through high school,” she says. “After (my husband) died, I really struggled to get back on track with my creative side. There are so many opportunities here to connect with new friends, open up my creativity and have places to express it.”

Square one was joining the Spouse Loss Support Group at the WinterSpring Center, where she became friends with center Executive Director Julie Lockhart.

“It was an amazing opportunity to be with people who knew my pain,” she says. “I thought it would always be various forms of pain the rest of my life. But you have these lurching moments where something really clicks and you start waking up to real happiness.”

Severeid and Lockhart co-wrote the soon-to-be-published “Parenting Alone: The Struggle of Single Parenting After the Death of Your Partner.” The two started a radio show, “Courageous Grief Talk — a Safe Way to Explore Loss,” on KSKQ, 89.5 FM. Its second season premieres at 3 p.m. Nov. 5.

Then Severeid became coordinator of AHS’s Parent Academy, a monthly informational panel dealing with tough topics of raising adolescents — single parenting, Internet addiction, anxiety/depression, bullying and such.

A prime motivation for writing the pair of grief-oriented books, says Severeid, is that, when she was going through it, she says, there seemed no such books available. She wanted them simple, direct, easy-to-read and written from the heart.

Caring for the dying partner? Ask them if they want to write or record a message for anyone, she writes in her 30-page book. Arrange visits of people they want to say goodbye to. Sit next to them so they can see your face. Help them get their paperwork in order, as it gives great peace of mind. Tell them how much they mean to you.

“Let the person be honest about their feelings. Do not feel the need to change or judge them. They have the right to their feelings, even if it might make you uncomfortable,” she writes. “Sometimes, people who are dying know better than the professionals treating them, the truth about what is going on and they have the right to their own truth.”

On the path to wholeness and her new life, Severeid taught an Osher Lifelong Learning Center class on writing your dream book. Her tips: Be honest, find out what you want to say and what it means to you and know what you’re trying to accomplish, she says — but then she corrects herself: “It’s not what you want to accomplish but, really, what you want to express. And don’t think about how many you’re going to sell. Start from the place that’s important to you and express this. Soon the words will be flowing out of you, almost like you can’t not do it.”

Her 2005 murder mystery, “The Death of Milly Mahoney,” details an ex-model and young widow as she tracks down the killer of her friend through “an intricate web of sex, love and hate, confronting ghosts of her own past, while making herself the killer’s next target.”

Classes in yoga and meditation were key on the road back to healing, she notes, as was bicycling and hanging out for hours in Lithia Park. Finally came the “fabulous 'aha' moments, when I realized I’d gotten a big piece of me back.”

In her earlier career, Emmy Award-winning Severeid acted in "CHIPS," "T. J. Hooker," "Santa Barbara" and "Howling IV." She hosted the giant California Jam 2 rock concert and was spokeswoman for many corporate films. A 10-year resident of the Netherlands, she was anchor of its “Global News” and “had a blast” as a main character in that nation’s biggest evening soap, playing “an American bitch” who did all the outrageous things to everyone. She has freelanced news packages for ABC and NPR, according to her website, www.susannesevereid.com.

Her advice about life in Hollywood: “As a woman, be careful, have an uncle who owns a production company, keep your head on your shoulders, treat it like a business, follow your passion and go for it — and remember that Hollywood is so full of BS, you don’t need galoshes; you need waders.”

Her late husband, Tony Van Renterghem, was a fighter and strategist in the Resistance Movement in the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation. He authored a book on the war, in Dutch, “The Last Huzzah (Hussar).” He was a prime mover in Veterans for Peace when the couple lived in Arizona.

After her five-year journey through grief, Severeid observes, “I flow more with life and am less controlling. I feel open to it. To love again? We can hope. Love is the most important thing there is. I was lucky to have a husband who loved me. Maybe it can come again.”

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.