Support group helps children share the pain of loss

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Kela Grooms, 10, who lost her mother to cancer, cries during a group activity with volunteer Julianne Lang

Kela Grooms, 10, who lost her mother to cancer, cries during a group activity with volunteer Julianne Lang

A small voice from the back of the room chimed in as the laughter and chatter quieted.

“I never really smile,” said Kela Grooms. “Even when I’m happy, I don’t really smile until I’m extremely happy.”

The other four young girls seated at the table were quiet, like they understood exactly what Kela, 10, meant.

They had laughed, and they felt OK just then, but sometimes they can feel so sad they can’t explain it. Sometimes they understand why — they’re mourning the loss of a parent or a sibling or grandparent. Sometimes the sadness comes unexpectedly and hangs over them like a heavy blanket.

Each of the children in this group has experienced a traumatic loss of a loved one — a family member usually, but sometimes a friend. Twice a month they meet in a small room at Good Grief of Northwest Ohio, a peer support group for children who have experienced the death of someone significant in their lives.

The nonprofit organization, funded through grants and donations, is headquartered in Holland in western Lucas County. The group has one full-time and three part-time employees. The rest of the staff, including those who run the peer groups, are volunteers. Good Grief serves about 30 families; about 25 children come for each session. There is no cost for families seeking services at Good Grief, and they’re allowed to stay as long as they feel necessary.

Dorothy Mockensturm, the managing director, said the average length of stay is about 11 months.

“It’s up to the families to decide when they feel like they’re done for now,” she said. “The door is always open. Different milestones in kids’ lives can change how things are going.”

On a recent Tuesday, Kela and the other four girls — making up “the middles” age group — started their meeting as they do every time they’re together.

Say your name and tell us who died.

Alena Burke, 9, who was new to the group that night, introduced herself. Her dad died, she said. So did her great-grandmother.

Bailey Clark, 9, said her sister died. On Bailey’s lap was a stuffed Pikachu toy. Her sister would have loved the Pikachu, she said.

Sophia Moran, 8, told the girls her twin brother died.

Caylen Crowl, 9, lost her father.

And Kela lost her mother.

“It’s not counseling. It’s not therapy. It’s a place where kids can come and spend two hours every other week and be with other kids who have also gone through the death of someone significant in their lives,” Ms. Mockensturm said. “Everyone here is going through the same thing.”

Beth Johnston, a three-year volunteer at Good Grief, pulled a stack of cards out of a small plastic bag. On each card was written a different emotion: depressed, frustrated, enraged. The girls played a game, acting out each of the emotions and guessing what each was. It was a way to get the girls to think about the different ways they feel and the emotions they experience.

“How many feel like they might be depressed?” Ms. Johnston said.

That started the girls going. It prompted Kela to say she doesn’t smile as much as she used to.

Kela’s mother, Kristine Grooms, died March 10, 2015, from adrenal cortical carcinoma, a rare form of cancer. She was 37.

“Why don’t you smile?” Ms. Johnston asked Kela. The other girls were quiet.

“It’s still, like, my mother is not here,” she said. “What am I supposed to do? I have a good time in band, but I still don’t smile about it. This is my mother’s saxophone, and I’m playing the exact instrument that she did. It still doesn’t make me smile until I realize if I get good at this, she’d be extremely proud of me.”

Ms. Johnston wanted to volunteer at Good Grief to “pay forward what I’ve learned,” she said. Her fiance died five years ago.

“I found out grief is upside down and sideways. You can be happy and miserable and scream out,” she said. She learned, after about a year of grieving, that she could be happy again, but in a different way.

“I know where they are and what they’re going through,” she said.

Deb Crowl founded Good Grief after her husband, John, died unexpectedly in March, 2014. He was 49.

She and her two daughters, Caylen and Chloe, 13, go to Good Grief. When the girls are in their peer meetings, Ms. Crowl is in one of her own.

Adults who bring children aren’t required to attend a group meeting, but Good Grief offers two: one for caregivers who are helping a child deal with grief and another for caregivers who are also navigating their own grief.

“I think that’s been really beneficial,” Ms. Crowl said. “It’s two-fold for us. We get things that help us as adults and as parents but also help us with our kids who are going through that process.”

Ms. Crowl, whose father died of lung cancer when she was 21, said the peer support has helped her deal with residual grief she never worked through as a young adult.

Sophia Moran, one of the young girls in the “middles” group, held in her hands two butterfly clips. The butterfly represents her twin, Rayden.

About 30 weeks into her pregnancy, Sophia’s mother, Julia Mortensen-Moran, learned her son, who had been so active, died in utero.

Mrs. Mortensen-Moran carried the babies until they were full term, delivering Rayden stillborn. Sophia and her mother attend Good Grief to understand better their feelings about Rayden’s death.

When Sophia started school, she was having a hard time making friends with siblings; they would ask her, “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”

Technically, yes, but explaining and understanding death at such a young age is hard.

Through some Internet searches, Mrs. Mortensen-Moran found Good Grief and, that day, they started attending meetings.

“Immediately it was life changing,” she said. “She had a connection. It’s been great.”

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