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‘Brighter Days’ ahead: Nonprofit builds connections to support grieving families

Because loss upends the lives of those left behind, Carolyn Kinzel explained it is her organization’s goal to help grieving families build connections that can make navigating their new reality a little easier.

The Rogers family, back left to right: twins Hailee and Haycen. Front row: Dani, mother Missy, father Mike, and Madison.
The Rogers family, back left to right: twins Hailee and Haycen. Front row: Dani, mother Missy, father Mike, and Madison.
Courtesy of the Rogers family

After her 18-year-old daughter Dani died, Missy Rogers lost track of her life.

“I wasn’t thinking at all,” she said. “The first two or three months is such a blur. We have family members who tell us they stopped by to visit us back then, but I just don’t remember them ever being at our house.”

The blur was so intense that Rogers and her husband Mike got behind on their mortgage payments and were at risk of losing their house. Dani’s grieving sisters — 13-year-old Madison and 8-year-old twins Hayden and Hailee — struggled at school while their parents dragged themselves through life, terrified of what the future could hold.

Then, one day, about eight or nine months after Dani’s December 2016 death, Rogers decided to see if there was a way her family could get the help they so desperately needed. After going online and searching “grief,” she found Brighter Days Grief Center, an Eden Prairie nonprofit that provides a range of free support for individuals and families navigating the rocky terrain of life after the loss or terminal diagnosis of a loved one.

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“I thought,” Rogers recalled, ‘This sounds like something we could utilize.’” She sent an email that same day, outlining the story of how Dani had died in a freak train accident and how their family was struggling to survive. She quickly heard back from Carolyn Kinzel, Brighter Days’ founder and executive director.

“Carolyn called and said she would like to meet,” Rogers said. Kinzel invited Rogers to come to Brighter Days for an intake meeting. A few days later, when Rogers arrived at the quiet suburban office park that houses the organization’s headquarters, she was comforted to see a warm and welcoming space decorated with homey furniture.

Carolyn Kinzel
Carolyn Kinzel
At their very first meeting, Kinzel sat down with Rogers and outlined how Brighter Days helps their clients.

“She genuinely cared about us,” Rogers said. “First off, they offered to help pay our mortgage.” The one-time payment was an exception made by Brighter Days’ board, and not something the organization regularly does.  “I was astounded and could not believe what she was telling me. Here I am, a stranger walking in their door, and they were willing to help. I met with Carolyn for an hour and a half. I cried the whole time.”

Because loss upends the lives of those left behind, Kinzel explained it is her organization’s goal to help grieving families build connections that can make navigating their new reality a little easier.

“When a person makes their way here,” Kinzel said, “the biggest, most important step is making it through the door. After that there is this moment of, ‘OK. What do I need to do next?’ That’s where we step in.”

At a typical intake meeting, Kinzel explained that she goes through an inventory of the family and other loved ones who may need help. “I ask questions like, ‘Are there kids? Where do they go to school? Maybe there are extended family members also need support. Can we connect them to trauma support as well?’ It’s our job to help these families find their way.”

For Rogers, having someone like Kinzel step in and help her get the care she and her family needed was a godsend. In the months after their daughter’s death, she and her husband felt abandoned and at sea: This was the first time that someone had taken the time to ask how they were doing — and to offer concrete suggestions for how they could start the long journey of recovery.

“At the end of that first meeting, Carolyn gave me a whole folder full of brochures and information,” Rogers said. “It was just laid into my lap. No one else had done something like this for me.”

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Even in the immediate aftermath of Dani’s death, concrete offers of information and assistance felt hard to come by, Rogers said. Her daughter, a University of Minnesota paleontology student on a full scholarship, was killed when she was hit by a freight train after she slipped and fell on the icy tracks on her way to the Anoka light rail stop.

“Right after Dani died,” Rogers said, “the police officer just handed me one brochure saying, ‘This is what is going to happen with her body.’ We didn’t have anybody calling or offering to help. That was it. To have someone like Brighter Days that gives you resources is so important. Without them I don’t know where we’d be today.”

‘Resource hub’ for grieving families

Brighter Days was inspired by Kinzel’s own experience with grief — both indirect and deeply personal. After witnessing two friends struggle to survive in the wake of their spouses’ unexpected deaths, she’d begun to think about starting a nonprofit that could help them — and others like them — navigate their upended lives.

With a master’s degree in human services and a concentration in nonprofit leadership, Kinzel felt perfectly suited to the task of setting up an organization like Brighter Days.

“I was in the process of making my initial start-up plans,” she recalled, when her own life was suddenly turned upside down.

It all happened in a heartbeat. One evening, Kinzel was at home when her doorbell rang. “Two detectives were there,” she recalled. Her son’s father had died by suicide. “They told me this news just as my sweet little 13-year-old boy was walking through the door.”

This news sent the household into a tailspin. “I was in complete shock,” Kinzel said. A single mother, she said she felt particularly lost with no one else to lean on: “I didn’t know how to help my son. I did not have the education to understand what kind of message I should be telling him. How do you share that information with a 13-year-old? What’s appropriate? Everything I knew as a parent went out the door. I felt completely helpless for him.”

Kinzel’s experience mirrored that of the friends who’d first inspired her to build her nonprofit. Both had lost family members (one his wife, and the other his wife and young son), and both, as Kinzel was now feeling, had felt isolated and confused about how to access the services that could help their remaining family members begin to heal. 

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After her son’s father’s death, Kinzel recalled needing help with practical things.

“My mind was swimming with questions,” she said, “like ‘What do I do with his insurance?’ ‘Do I put my son on a medication?’ ‘How do I get him to get out of bed in the morning?’ I was overwhelmed and I needed to know where I could turn for these answers. These are the kind of things that often come up for families when there is a death.”

This tragedy eventually compelled Kinzel to establish Brighter Days. “I didn’t want anyone else to struggle Iike I did, or like my friends had,” she said. “Our main purpose is to make sure that people have a place they can come to for support at this difficult time.”

In the wake of a death, there are so many questions to answer, Kinzel said. “When my son’s father died, I would have done anything to sit down with someone and have them help me sort through the decisions I needed to make.”

Because she understands that grieving families need all-encompassing support that includes not only therapy and support groups but also financial counseling and basic needs like shopping and meal support, Kinzel makes sure that Brighter Days takes a holistic approach to their work with clients. She likes to call herself a “family advocate,” because she’s focused on advocating for the needs of the families who walk through her door.

“At the very core of what we do is we are a resource hub,” she said. “People can come to our website and they can learn about all of the nonprofits or other organizations that are applicable to their situation.”

Clients like Rogers can also meet Brighter Days staff in person so they can better assess their needs. “We wanted to make sure we were bridging the gap between families and organizations that could support them,” Kinzel explained.

She said that early on she set to work making connections with local organizations and nonprofits that offer services to families in need. In the three years since Brighter Days’ founding, Kinzel said she’s built partnerships  “with over 50 different organizations, from M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital to Fairview Youth Grief Services to the majority of the cancer organizations in Minnesota. We wanted everybody to know that we existed, from members of the medical community to funeral homes to schools — everyone on the front lines.”

Though she’s already swamped by requests for help, Kinzel said she wants people and organizations that regularly encounter families faced with loss to be familiar with Brighter Days and the services it offers: “I want places like churches, fire departments, police departments, funeral homes to know about us and what we can do. I want them to pass on our name to the people who really need us.”

While many of Brighter Days’ clients are looking for emotional support, seeking referrals to therapists and group therapy sessions that focus on grief and loss, Kinzel said that there is also great need for connections to more practical supports.

In the days after her son’s father died, even getting food on the table was hard, Kinzel recalled. With that memory in mind, she made sure that Brighter Days offered meal support to newly grieving families.

“We will have a bunch of pre-made meals set up through Let’s Dish!,” Kinzel said. “You can throw them in the freezer and not think about meals when you are going through this time.” And because legal and financial worries can also be overwhelming after a death, she’s made connections with legal and financial experts who volunteer to advise Brighter Days clients.

“We have a probate attorney and a financial adviser who are willing to meet with our clients and help them think about what to do if they’ve lost an income,” Kinzel said. “These are professionals who have lost a family member themselves and now volunteer with us.”

Kelly Grosklags, a grief therapist and founder of Conversations With Kelly, is a member of Brighter Days’ advisory board. The organization is small — just Kinzel, a social worker and a part-time administrative assistant — but somehow they manage to quickly connect with all clients who reach out to them for help.

Kelly Grosklags
Kelly Grosklags
“The people who contact them hear back from the center within a very reasonable time,” Grosklags said. “I’ve never quite seen anything like that.”

This responsiveness is important, Grosklags said: “The desperation of people reaching out at such a difficult time is so palpable. Carolyn connects with them. She makes it very clear that she’s not a therapist, but she’s an incredible support person. She’s investing heart and soul into these people before she refers them on.”

And the connections Kinzel makes for her clients are spot-on, Grosklags added.

“Carolyn is incredibly connected. There hasn’t been a case I’ve run by her that she hasn’t been able to help — even if it is out of the norm. People call and say, ‘I’ve had this significant death.’ Brighter Days is so skilled at helping you understand what it is they can offer and help you find your way. When you are grieving, you don’t always know what you need. They are good at listening to your experience and helping you ascertain what might be most helpful.”

A web of support

By the time Diane Galleger learned about Kinzel and Brighter Days, she had already experienced the worst thing that could happen to a mother — twice.

Years ago, after Galleger’s first child, a girl named Amanda, died at birth, Galleger joined a support group for mothers who had lost infants, called MEND, or Mommies Enduring Neonatal Death.

For Galleger, who was living in Texas at the time, the group became an essential part of her healing process. “We all had something in common,” she said. “We all lost a baby. There was no other type of group for it. We all had this common bond and this was a safe place to talk. It was so important for me.”

Many years later, Galleger and her husband moved to Minnesota. In 2015, the couple’s second daughter, a compassionate, adventurous athlete named Sydney, died during a routine wisdom-tooth extraction.

“A lot of medical errors happened,” Galleger explained. “Sydney died six days later. She was 17.”

This second death was crushing, and once she’d recovered from the initial shock, Galleger knew that she needed to find another support group like the one she’d relied on back in Texas. Kinzel, who lives in the same community, heard Galleger’s story, and reached out to offer her support. Brighter Days was just getting started, and she wanted her to know about the services her organization offered, including a support group she was forming for grieving mothers.

Sydney and Diane Galleger
Courtesy of Diane Galleger
Sydney and Diane Galleger
Galleger eventually joined the group at Brighter Days, and is now one of its co-leaders. Just like the MEND group, she said, this new group has become a lifeline, a safe place where she can go for support and understanding — two things that are often hard to come by when you are mired in grief.

The Brighter Days group has 12 members, Galleger said. It’s a good number — enough to bring a range of experiences and perspectives, but not so many that meetings feel unruly. Before COVID-19 and shelter-in-place, the group meet monthly in a conference room at Brighter Days. But when in-person meetings were put on hold, members decided that even a global pandemic wouldn’t stop them: Monthly meetings continue via Zoom — and more frequent, informal connections are made daily on the group’s closed Facebook page.

While “nothing is the same as meeting together face-to-face, where you can hug each other and cry with each other and hold each other when you are having a hard day,” Galleger said, “we are making the best of it, and it actually works really well.”

In person or online, the meetings remain a lifeline for members. “What we do is we get together to talk about our feelings and what we are going through,” Galleger said. “We’re all in various stages of our grief.” She said she finds inspiration as she watches new members move through the different stages of grief.

“I see such a huge difference from when they first started just a year ago. It’s because we are there as a sounding board for each other. We can ask, ‘This is what I’m thinking. Am I crazy for thinking this?’ And the others will say, ‘No. You’re not crazy.’ It is such a safe place because everything that we talk about stays amongst us.”

Brighter Days also sponsors a range of other support groups, including options for bereaved fathers or siblings or caregivers. (“All these groups just keep evolving,” Galleger said. “Carolyn’s mind just never stops. I don’t think she ever sleeps. She has such a passion for helping others.” )

In the age of coronavirus, these groups have also all moved online, and members are eagerly awaiting the time when it is safe for them to meet in person again.

Hayden, Madison and Hailee Rogers holding a portrait of Dani.
Courtesy of the Rogers family
Hayden, Madison and Hailee Rogers holding a portrait of Dani.
After her first meeting with Kinzel, Rogers said that she and her family kept coming back to Brighter Days. They were all stuck in their grief and eager to find a way to climb out. Kinzel found spots for Rogers’ three surviving children at Hearts of Hope, a camp for children and families impacted by grief. She also reserved a weekend for the family at Faith’s Lodge, a retreat for families who have lost children. And Rogers and her husband began attending Brighter Days support groups.

Though Rogers said that she will never be able to forget the pain of losing Dani, (“She was literally the best kid on the earth,” she said, proudly. “I’m not saying it because I was her mom. She was just amazing.”), she believes that her life today is happy and satisfying, thanks to the support she received from Brighter Days. Her family continues to support the nonprofit, participating in its annual fundraising walk and telling anyone who is willing to listen about all the good work it does.

“When you complain about the little things in life, in the grand scheme of things they are not big things at all,” Rogers said. “When I had all four of my girls, my life was pretty perfect. I would to anything to have that life back, but I can’t, and thanks to Carolyn, the life I have today somehow feels pretty perfect, too.”

Brighter Days Grief Center is supported by a number of local philanthropic organizations, including local churches, the Eden Prairie Community Foundation and the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation, which gave the group their first grant. To date, Kinzel reported, Brighter Days has served 1,800 people. Because of COVID-19, Brighter Days’ annual fundraising gala had to canceled this year, so it moved its fundraising efforts online. To donate, go here.