The monogrammed necklace of her dad’s initials she wears, and the quilt made of his old T-shirts on her bed, are just two ways Oceana (Oh-SHE-anna) Bailey stays close to the memory of Richard Bailey—the father she adored who walked her to school every day until she was in third grade and taught her about baseball. She was in sixth grade when her dad died at home from congenital heart disease under hospice care in April 2011.
“After he died, I told some friends how I was feeling, but most of them didn’t get it,” says Oceana, now fifteen. “Even my closest friends sometimes don’t seem to understand.”
Oceana’s mom, Julia Huttar-Bailey, took a proactive approach to dealing with the unpredictable components of grief that arrive without warning—anger, sadness, frustration, feeling misunderstood and confused—that she knew she and her daughter would experience after their loss. “Before Richard died, someone told us about Ele’s [ELL-ees] Place and I looked it up online. It was comforting to know that it was available.”
“Kids grieve differently than adults,” says Kathleen Cramer, managing director of the Ann Arbor Ele’s Place (the twenty-three year old nonprofit also has locations in Lansing and Grand Rapids). “Ele’s Place gives them a place where they can get the support they need with kids their age who understand, who can relate to the loss of a sibling, parent, friend, or grandparent. It’s important because those who don’t deal with loss are at greater risk of depression, acting out, poor school performance, substance abuse, and suicide.”
Greater Washtenaw County children, teens, and young adults join weekly peer support groups at Ann Arbor Unitarian Universalist Church, where Ele’s Place rents meeting space. (There are currently twenty-seven groups running Mondays through Wednesdays in Ann Arbor.) There, they share their feelings with peers who have also experienced the death of a family member or close friend. Groups for parents and guardians run concurrently. Trained professionals and volunteers facilitate the groups and services, all provided at no charge. Ele’s Place also offers groups at schools.
Oceana and her mother began attending sessions each Monday evening where, after a potluck dinner, kids broke out into one of six age-divided groups while adults went to their own group. Each group began with Opening Circle, where peers explained who they had lost in their life and their cause of their death. Afterwards, kids joined in a fifteen-minute gross motor activity to “help get the wiggles out,” says Kramer, “as younger kids can’t focus on grief for an hour.” (Oceana most enjoyed tearing up phone books—a healthy way to release anger—and popping bubble wrap.) Grief-related play-based activity made up the remaining forty-five minutes. Other activities included a David Letterman–like “Top Ten Stupidest Things People Said to Me at the Funeral” and “The Other Foot,” where kids wrote on paper shoe shapes uncomfortable things people said to them about their loss. Kramer says the challenge was for kids to share afterwards what they wish people had said or done.
Oceana says that between sessions, she and others in her group stayed in touch by texting. “Something would trigger the memory of my dad, and the other kids got it.”
Just as there is no timeline for grief, there is no timeline for groups and support at Ele’s Place. Oceana and her mom attended for nearly a year and a half.
“You get through it, but you’ll never get over it,” Oceana explains. “I grew.” And thanks to Ele’s Place, “I know how to cope with grief better. I don’t hide my feelings.”