After a loved one dies, how can one go on? These survivors have found that, with love and companionship, it is possible.
The room should be filled with sorrow.
Last summer, 49-year-old Jennifer Hibdon’s parents, Jim and Mina, died in a double suicide. Yvette Patton’s 21-year-old son, Preston Richmond, a graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School, in January died suddenly in his sleep — it is so fresh that she has yet to see a full report on the cause of death. Amy Anderson, joined by 9-year-old daughter Bryn, lost her baby, Zane, to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and, just last year, her only brother to suicide. Hank Tonnesen, a 99-year-old White Rock area resident, still cries when he talks about Dottie, his wife of 74 years who died in 2007.
Sadness is indeed present as they share their stories, but it mingles with smiles, laughter and love.
This is as it should be, says Laurie Taylor, co-founder, along with Hibdon, of the Grief and Loss Center of North Texas.
“Agony and joy can live in the heart at the same time,” Taylor says. “You don’t get over it. Time does not heal it. Instead you learn to live with the loss and it becomes part of the fabric of your life.”
Taylor is a grief and loss specialist certified in Thanatology, the study of death, dying and bereavement. More important, group members will tell you, she is passionate about helping others who are reeling from the loss of a loved one. She and Hibdon started the center because they believe it is a much-needed public service.
“Each person’s grief process is different,” Taylor says. “While there are commonalities when people mourn the loss of a loved one, it’s a very personal experience. Our goal with the center is to act as a companion and provide support throughout the grieving process.”
The sessions are open to anyone of any faith or lack thereof. They are free, and groups meet at Wilshire Baptist Church at Abrams and Mockingbird.
It’s OK to cry
Long before organizing the Grief and Loss Center, Taylor was an angel to suffering church members. When 3-month-old Zane Anderson died, Taylor was the first person to show up at the Anderson home. “It made such a difference,” Amy Anderson says. “She led me through the most basic steps.” Taylor also sat in the room with little Zane’s body until the coroner arrived — “It was such an honor,” Taylor says of the experience.
It is important, says Taylor, that people be allowed to grieve. “Amy has a big, beautiful, healthy baby boy — she wakes up one day and he is dead in his crib. Tell her to be strong? No. She does not have to be strong.”
Tonnesen, whose wife Dottie has been gone for four years, says that he just last week cleared the clothes from her closet. It’s OK, says Taylor. Sometimes we want to rush to help people rid themselves of the memory of a lost loved one, but that is not necessary, she explains. “Keep the clothes, the photos, the memories, as long as you want to,” she says.
She points out that Tonnesen’s is a type of “disenfranchised grief”. This, she explains, is the sort of grief that we often don’t acknowledge. Disenfranchised grief might include the loss of an elderly spouse, grandparents, a miscarriage, or the death of a gay partner, she says. “We need to honor this grief — can you imagine losing the person who was one half of your life for 74 years and then having people discount your loss because she ‘had a long life’ or they ‘had a good long life together’?”
Tonneson, who met Laurie Taylor at a church-related event, says that after he shared his story with her, she sent him cards every week for two years. His voice cracks as he recalls the kindness. “I don’t know if I would have made it without them,” Tonneson says of the group. “It opened my eyes to the pain others were feeling too. I thought I had problems, but there were other people suffering more than me.”
Yvette Patton says she felt as if she had been hit by a brick, when her son Preston died suddenly in his bed. Taylor sat beside Yvette the first day as she wrote her boy’s obituary. Patton says she was in a “block of ice” that only began to thaw when she started interacting with other group members.
After the casseroles
Taylor explains the usual progression of events following death: People are moved to help. They show up with casseroles and put the memorial services on their calendars, offer condolences — they perform these necessary actions with a good heart — and then they return their “grief box” to the shelf and move on with their lives. When all the activity settles, the person who has lost a loved one has barely begun to thaw out. “They don’t even have a grief box,” she says. “Their grief is scattered … they are all over the place.”
She aims to “companion” people through their lives, which have been permanently changed by their losses.
Most people, including very good-hearted ones, don’t understand grief and therefore might do or say hurtful things.
Yvette Patton recalls people turning the other way when they saw her in the grocery store, probably because they didn’t know what to say. Or they might talk to her but avoid the topic of her late son Preston altogether.
“I want to hear my child’s name,” she says.
There are three safe things you can say to a bereaved person, Taylor says (and Patton nods in agreement):
1. “I love you.” 2. “I am so sorry.” 3. “I am praying for you”, or “you are in my thoughts.”
The gift of experience
Those who have experienced tremendous loss may be best equipped to help others going through the same. Take Jennifer Hibdon, for example. Her father, Jim, was a respected professor at the University of Oklahoma. Mom, Mina, had served as an Oklahoma state representative. They had been married 65 years when they shockingly decided to end their own lives. Only one year later, Hibdon is a founder, board member and active participant in the Grief and Loss Center.
You don’t get over something like this, she says, but rather you learn how to weave the experience into your life.
She is a publicist, if you will, for the organization, because she wants others to understand that it is possible to get through the pain. Most people don’t have a place to turn, Taylor points out, and she notes that unresolved grief can be a cause of many problems in life.
The Grief and Loss Center of North Texas offers groups that deal with suicide, death of a spouse, parent or child and even living losses such as divorce. There are usually just a few people in each group, separated by type of experience.
Taylor also works with children. Bryn Anderson, 9, whose brother Zane died when he was a baby, also lost her uncle, Mom Amy’s brother, to suicide. “Knowing that other people have been though it makes it easier,” Bryn says.
“I worry about how these things will shape her as she grows,” Amy Anderson says, “but I feel confident about what Laurie has been able to do for her.”
Taylor insists that it is her honor to walk with the group members in their dark hours and to get to share the memory of loved-ones lost. “I feel like I know Dottie Tonnesen, and Mina and Jim Hibdon.”
Many of the dead, Preston, little Zane and Amy Anderson’s brother Brad Newsom, she knew personally.
This is not an exact science, Anderson points out. “When it comes to dealing with death, there is no manual. That is why this center is so important.”
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