Shared Grief, Shared Healing
The Story of Ryan's Place
The tragedy happened in 1992: Ryan Gleim, a teenager, was killed in an auto accident. Knowing that his younger brother Damon would need help dealing with the death of his sibling, Ryan’s parents, Rex and Nancy Gleim, took their younger son for counseling. But it became apparent after some fruitless counseling sessions that Damon wouldn’t do well in one-on-one therapy; he needed normalcy, a community where he wouldn’t feel different from his peers, separated by the vale his brother’s death had drawn around him.
But the idea of community grief, while recommended by Damon’s counselors, was simply an idea, and nothing like it was available in Michiana. That’s when the Gleims began working with therapists Don and Eunice Munn to open Ryan’s Place in January 2002. I spoke with Aileac Deegan, executive director, to find out more about what Ryan’s Place does and what they’ve learned in the past ten years about healing.
What is the focus here at Ryan’s Place?
“We focus on peer-to-peer support groups,” Deegan says. “Families come and can participate in groups for kids or adults, divided up by age. There are groups for adults who have friends who’ve died, children who’ve died, a suicide survivors group and a family support group.”
The evening begins with a community meal, eaten together by peers and facilitators. After that, everyone breaks up into groups and is given one question for the evening.
“These questions are usually topical,” Deegan says, “like, ‘where were you when your loved one died.’ This gives everyone a chance to talk about the death – to get out the guilt, anger, fear or whatever – and give them space to do that in a non-judgmental environment.”
While adults may know how to express their emotions, in the kids’ groups, however, Deegan says there are usually activities based around getting children to talk about a loved one, perhaps by making a memory of their loved one. This is specifically to help them find out what their emotions are in the first place.
“It helps them to open up and process,” Deegan says. “We have three goals for the kids here: one, to realize the person is dead and not coming back. Two, feel feelings about the person being dead – anger, guilt, sadness, etc. And three, be able to have grieved for the loved one and continue to if need be, but also continue to invest in life and relationships. We want the kids to know they don’t have to feel guilty about going out and having fun and living their lives.”
How is being a part of something like Ryan’s Place more helpful than being on one’s own?
“Well, I think at first, a family doesn’t necessarily need a place to go. They have support; they have friends, and no one expects them to be happy or normal. The most helpful time to come to Ryan’s Place is a few months after everyone has stopped supporting them and bringing food, that time when everyone else is getting back to normal, and the family just isn’t. They can’t.”
That being said, Deegan notes, when the time is right, Ryan’s Place offers a haven away from expectations.
“I think it normalizes things for children,” she says. “When a child is at school, they are different. No one understands what they’re going through, and people expect them to get over death. But when a child is with others who’ve experienced death themselves, they know they’re not alone. When they say what they feel, and others respond with, ‘Yeah, I feel that, too,’ it can be very healing. A little boy we work with recently said to his mom, ‘You know, it’s okay to cry at Ryan’s Place.’ He just doesn’t have another place he can do that without being judged.”
So, is there a program, or a cost? How is Ryan’s Place run?
“We’re providing this service for free,” Deegan says. “We’re volunteer run, and our volunteers are trained to walk as facilitators. Most of them have experienced death in the family at some stage and just want to help others going through a similar experience. As for a program, we have no “Ten-Steps-and-You’re-Healed program.” Families can come anytime they want and stay until they want to leave.” Deegan thinks a moment. “We’ve had some families come for just a few sessions, and some families stay for as long as three years.”
Ryan’s Place, she says, understands that the process of pain is as unique as the individual and doesn’t try to crowd everyone through a similar program.
What tips do you have for guiding a child through a death?
- “Oftentimes, children don’t think things are permanent. Kids tend to have their own death data bank. For example, when they watch TV, sometimes a person is killed, and the next minute he’s fine – like The Roadrunner,” Deegan says. “So you must make death concrete. Use the real words, death and dead. We use these words – we don’t say a person was lost or passed on.”
- “Children are often terrified that someone else will die, so we want to help them with their fears. Your child might be frightened every time you leave. Be gentle with them about that, and tell the child that there’s a plan if something happens to you,” Deegan says. “Oftentimes, we want to shield our children from the idea of death, but if they know you have a plan, it can be comforting to them.”
- “When a child grieves and then seems okay, it doesn’t mean he or she’s done – grief is cyclical; it comes and goes. There are good and bad days.” Deegan gives an example of children at a funeral, which may sit inside and cry, go out and play, then come back and cry once more. “They’re not just looking for attention,” she says. “Kids grieve in installments; they don’t do it all at one time. They grieve as long as they can, then go take a break and come back to it again. The point is that the breaks should get longer and longer.”
- Be patient and let the child work through the grief. “If kids aren’t allowed to grieve properly, they can get into risky behavior later on,” Deegan warns.
What if the person dealing with grief is yourself, or a friend?
- “Don’t expect to get over it right away – everyone’s grief journey is different. Some people get through it quickly, some take longer,” Deegan says, “and to the friend, never tell someone they need to get over it.”
- “Know that you’re okay the way you are,” Deegan says. “Your grief doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s.”
- “Adults try to take care of kids and themselves through grief. Try to have people around you that can support you, and accept that help from others. Just having someone show up and babysit to give you a break can be helpful.”
For more information, please visit ryans-place.org.