A group of concerned citizens is banding together to form a nonprofit organization, Good Grief of Northwest Ohio, to help children cope with the thoughts and feelings they experience after the death of a loved one.
More than two years ago — long before last month’s massacre at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school — Molly Long felt the need to offer grief counseling for children in the Toledo area.
“As you all know, there’s nothing that affects everyone more than birth and death – not even taxes,” said Long, who serves on Good Grief’s board of directors.
Announcing the program launch to about 50 people at a public meeting Tuesday night (Jan. 15) at the University of Toledo, Long said Good Grief will begin holding programs in April.
Among those who spoke at the meeting was Kaye Lani Rae Rafko-Wilson, a former Miss America and a registered nurse who now heads a family grief center, Gabby’s Ladder, in her hometown of Monroe, Mich.
“We have been servicing many, many people from the Toledo area because there has been an absence of a program,” Rafko-Wilson said. She said she was glad to be able to help the Toledoans get Good Grief off the ground because grieving children need specialized help.
“There’s normal grief and there’s complicated grief,” Rafko-Wilson explained.
Normal grief is when a death can be anticipated, as with illness or old age. Complicated grief is when death “just kind of blindsides you,” she said.
“You say goodbye to your mom or your dad or your sibling and there’s been a car accident or a heart attack or an aneurysm or a drowning or homicide or suicide,” Rafko-Wilson said. “That’s a very complicated death. There’s no preparation for that one. … But when it’s a child experiencing a death, it’s always complicated. And we need something specific in our hometown for that.”
Rafko-Wilson, who won the Miss America crown in 1988, said she experienced grief firsthand when her brother Nick was killed in a car accident in 1994, and again in 2002 when she lost a son shortly after his birth. She also lost her father when he was 59 years old.
Since Gabby’s Ladder was founded in 2000, the agency has served more than 10,000 people in southeast Michigan and northwest Ohio, she said. Citing a study by Columbia University, Rafko-Wilson said 1 in 20 children will lose a parent before graduating from high school.
That “astounding” statistic doesn’t include children who lose a sibling, a grandparents or a friend, she added, and if a child’s grief is not dealt with properly and remains unresolved, it can have negative consequences that can last a lifetime, from truancy and anti-social behavior to violence and substance abuse.
Rafko-Wilson, who had just returned from last week's Miss America Pageant in Las Vegas, where she hosted events on Thursday night, said there is a spirit of collaboration, not competition among the regional organizations and she and others are eager to help Good Grief begin meeting the needs of Toledo-area children.
Long said Good Grief is modeled in part after other children’s grief support centers around the country, in particular Ele’s Place in Lansing, Mich., which was founded 22 years ago.
Betsy Stover, the founder of Ele’s Place, spoke of losing a daughter to illness at age 11 months — just two weeks before she turned 1. She and her husband had to break the news to their three children, ages 7, 5 and 3.
“Anyone old enough to love is old enough to grieve,” Stover said.
Seeking to help other children and families cope with grief, she founded Ele’s Place, named for her daughter, Ele Stover. The agency's name also reflects its philosophy of “Embracing Loss Effectively,” Stover said. The Lansing office has since added chapters in Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids, Mich.
Sarah Stachak, 21, a University of Toledo senior, spoke at the event about her struggles after losing her mother when she was 9 years old. Pausing as she teared up onstage, Stachak said that as a young child she searched for answers to the questions, “Why did this happen, and why did this happen to my mother?”
Areka Foster, Good Grief’s program director, is a social worker who spent 12 years employed by a hospice organization. She said the Good Grief sessions will start with a potluck meal for the families, after which the children will be divided into groups based on their ages.
Jeanne Cooper, former program director for Ele's Place, said the goal is for each group to have between 8 and 10 children and four volunteer facilitators. Training and lesson plans will be given to all the volunteers, she added.
Long said children age 4 and up must be accompanied by a parent or guardian to attend the sessions. Only adults who bring children to Good Grief sessions can participate in complementary programs, Long said.
The sessions will be held on Monday nights starting in April at CedarCreek Church’s South Toledo campus, 2150 S. Byrne Road, with dinner at 6:15 p.m. and group programming from 6:45 to 7:45 p.m.
Good Grief is not affiliated with CedarCreek or any religious organization, Long said, and its programs are open to people of all faith traditions.
Foster said religion often plays a major role in resolving grief. Faith can serve to comfort children, she said, but there is “the other side of the coin” in which grief and tragedy can lead a child to question the existence of God.
“That’s why it’s good to talk about it in a support group,” she said.
At this point, Good Grief has no paid staff and no budget. Everything has been donated and all the work is being done on a volunteer basis, Long said.
The organization has a long list of needs, from making its services known to raising funds to recruiting volunteers. A wish list of items for donation is available on its website, as well as information and forms for volunteers.
For more information, contact Molly Long by phone, 419-45-6264, or email, firstname.lastname@example.org.