After her 15-year-old daughter Maddie died unexpectedly in May 2021, Beth Blair’s life was a blur. She doesn’t remember much from those awful first few weeks, but somehow she managed to get online and search for grief-support resources for her surviving children.
Blair’s search eventually led her to Brighter Days Family Grief Center, an Eden Prairie-based nonprofit that provides a range of support services for families grieving the death or terminal diagnosis of a loved one.
Most of the other organizations that Blair found seemed to focus their grief-support programming on adults, but Brighter Days, she quickly discovered, “has offerings specially designed for kids. I saw they had a back-to-school session for kids coping with loss. This seemed perfect, just what I was looking for.”
Blair especially wanted to find an age-appropriate group where her youngest daughter, seven-year-old Maisie, could feel comfortable talking about losing her beloved older sister. “Every evening the two of them would hang out, giggle and play,” Blair said. “Despite their age difference they’d always play together. It was such a profound loss.”
A kid-focused grief group, Blair hoped, could help put this loss into a language that would make sense to a young child. She also wanted her daughter to understand that she was not alone, that other kids have also lost close family members. So she signed Maisie up for a six-week grief support program for children and teens age 4-17.
For Maisie, the youth grief group has been “very beneficial,” Blair said. Besides sharing memories of their loved ones and hearing other group members talk about their losses, participants work on age-appropriate art projects designed to help them process their grief.
The younger children, Blair recalled, “painted rocks for their loved ones. Afterward, we went to the cemetery and brought a few to leave at Maddie’s grave.” Maisie decorated one of her rocks with a ladybug: “She really enjoyed that. It felt like she was making something special for her sister.”
Youth programming is a new offering at Brighter Days, which was established in 2016 by founder Carolyn Kinzel as a resource and support program for families coping with the loss of a loved one. Kinzel, who had supported her own son as he grieved the sudden death of his father, wanted to help make the process easier for other families.
For the first few years of its existence, Brighter Days focused on connecting grieving families with resources for emotional and financial support. Then, in December 2020, the nonprofit made a major expansion, when it acquired M Health Fairview’s Youth Grief Services, a program that had provided a range of support and education services for children and their families experiencing grief.
The acquisition opportunity was not something that Kinzel had been expecting. “Fairview was laying off quite a few people and thinking about closing it down altogether,” Kinzel said. The program was well known and respected, and she felt it would be a big loss if it went away.
“They were our No. 1 partner that we’d refer to for grief support for children who came through our program,” Kinzel said. “At the end of the day we knew we could not say no, that this program could not go away”
While she’d long dreamed of expanding Brighter Days’ reach, Kinzel admitted that she hadn’t expected it to happen quite so soon. “It was a great gift that was presented in our laps but was terrifying,” she said. “We went from being this little nonprofit to acquiring a program that had quite a large budget and staff. It was a really big transition for us.”
‘The forgotten grievers’
In the not-so-distant past, physicians used to believe that babies didn’t feel pain. In the same way, children’s grief was also downplayed and often considered to be less intense than adults’. The lasting power of those outmoded beliefs may explain why grief support resources for kids and teenagers are still relatively rare.
Ryan Moravetz, Brighter Days counseling intern, knows about this gap from personal experience. When he was 15 years old, his father, grandmother and uncle were killed by a drunk driver while on a family trip. Moravetz was supposed to be on that trip, too, but he’d stayed behind because the night before he’d had an argument with his father.
For years, Moravetz struggled with a deep feeling of loss combined with intense survivor’s guilt. “I was never given an opportunity to resolve differences from the night before and didn’t have a chance to apologize or tell my dad how much I loved him,” he said.
Instead of seeking out help for his own grief, Moravetz focused on caring for his mother and sister. “I incorrectly chose to go at my grief alone,” he said. “I ignored my grief and pushed it aside to be strong for them. I didn’t allow them to support me.”
Maybe because it seemed like he was doing okay, Moravetz said that none of the adults in his life encouraged him to seek psychological help to process his complex emotions. He finished high school and graduated college with a business degree, taking a job in sales and logistics because it seemed like the right thing to do. Though his wife knew about his loss, Moravetz rarely spoke about it. For two decades, he kept his head down and plowed through life.
“I went through the motions, never really acknowledging my pain,” he said.
Then, in March 2018, Moravetz and his wife had their first child. “I knew it was a time where I should’ve been excited and filled with joy about becoming a new parent,” he said. “But instead I was overwhelmed with all the unresolved grief of losing my dad and deeply sad that my son would never get a chance to meet his grandpa and my dad would never meet his grandson.”
Because he said he needed to, “be happy and strong for my son,” Moravetz went all in to resolve his grief. He joined a grief support group, where he met other people who had also experienced significant loss. “I quickly discovered that I wasn’t alone in my misery,” he said.
Confronting his grief eventually led to major life change when Moravetz quit his corporate job and went back to school for a masters’ degree in counseling. Now nearing 40, he’s devoted his life to guiding young people through their grief. “I’d rather spend 60 hours a week helping other people than helping an international corporation keep product on the shelves,” he said.
As a requirement for his masters’ degree, Moravetz must complete a counseling internship. When he researched possible sites, he discovered that there were few places that offered opportunities for child-focused grief therapists.
“I came to realize there aren’t many resources for youth or children or adolescents,” Moravetz said. “As you get older, folks become widowed, and they have friends, support networks, coworkers that can provide support and assistance. Children are often labeled as, ‘the forgotten grievers.’ They’re cast aside.”
As a counseling intern at Brighter Days, Moravetz combines his training and personal experience to support young people facing grief and loss. He provides one-on-one counseling to children and teens, leads grief-support groups and co-facilitates a group for teens. This fall he also helped facilitate a two-night grief-support retreat for young adults at Faith’s Lodge in Wisconsin.
“From the moment I heard about it, I was drawn to this program,” he said. “I couldn’t help but think back to myself as a 15- year-old and wonder what this program could’ve done to put my life on a different trajectory. I hope that I can help other young people make their lives a little easier.”
A range of options
For the last 20 years, Katie Eisold has focused her career on helping children and families navigate some of the most difficult moments in life. As a certified child life specialist at Fairview Ridges Hospital, she helped families navigate difficult life moments. She volunteered for the Youth Grief Services program for several years before becoming program manager.
When she learned that Brighter Days would be acquiring Youth Grief Services, Eisold said, “Honestly I was excited about the opportunity. Brighter Days is such a strong nonprofit and I knew it would bring additional opportunities that maybe Fairview hadn’t been able to provide.”
In the 10 months Since Youth Grief Services staff joined Brighter Days, Eisold, now young adult and family program director, said that the combined nonprofit has experienced rapid growth. “We have many new families that are joining our youth program. The word is out there and people are turning to us for help. I’m so grateful that we are able to touch more families.”
The combined global pandemic and addiction crisis means that the need for the services provided by Brighter Days is stronger than ever, Kinzel added. Joining forces with the Youth Grief Services team means that the range of offerings her nonprofit can provide has expanded — with options for family members of all ages.
All of this programmatic growth requires physical expansion, too, and Kinzel said she has launched a $6 million capital campaign with a goal of building a free-standing center for her program, an “absolutely beautiful building meant to combine grief and wellness.”
Kinzel said she thinks the state needs a center specifically designed to meet the needs of grieving families. “Minnesota is known for its care. We have the Mayo Clinic. We have Hazelden. We have Melrose Center, Masonic Cancer Center. We have all of these incredible centers dedicated to care, but we don’t have anything specifically for grief. It’s time we do something about it. From day one, our goal has been to build a center with space to bring families together in a place that’s created for them.”
To Blair and her family, Brighter Days has felt like a shelter from the storm. Maisie continues to meet regularly with her grief counselor. It’s a place where she can feel comfortable talking about her big sister, doing simple things like acknowledging Maddie’s 16th birthday.
“They had a cupcake together and sang ‘Happy Birthday,’” Blair said. “Maisie made her a birthday card. Later, we delivered that card to the cemetery.”
Other people might feel uncomfortable celebrating the birthday of a deceased relative, Blair admitted, but it was exactly just what Maisie needed. She now knows that she’s not the only kid who’s experienced a loss, that her grief is normal and healthy, and that she’s found a place where she feels understood.