Ele’s Place: Healing Centers Help Michigan Kids Grieve

If you live in a small town, the place to be on Friday nights is the high school football game.

For the Overweg family of Springport, Michigan, the game wasn’t just a place to socialize and see friends. It was where they gathered to cheer on family patriarch, Mannes “Todd” Overweg, the team’s coach.

Todd Overweg coaching with son Luke. Photo courtesy of the Overweg family.
Todd Overweg coaching with son Luke.
Photo courtesy of the Overweg family.

In the fall of 2008, Overweg, who was also a third-grade teacher for the school district, wasn’t feeling quite right. He put off going to see a doctor, thinking he could tough it out. By December, he was throwing up without explanation. His wife, Tanya Overweg, said he ended up getting some medication to make it through to Christmas break.

The 39-year-old never returned to the classroom or the football field.

After many tests that didn’t lead to a diagnosis, an echocardiogram revealed an advanced case of dilated cardiomyopathy. Todd Overweg was put on the heart transplant list and airlifted to Henry Ford Hospital on Valentine’s Day, 2009. An infection and fever made him an unlikely candidate to receive a healthy heart.

“He just didn’t get any better,” Tanya Overweg said.

The funeral was held on St. Patrick’s Day that year, adding another holiday to the family’s calendar marked by sadness. With four children to care for and shepherd through their grief, Tanya Overweg said those first weeks were a blur. Still, after hearing about Ele’s Place a number of times from concerned friends and relatives, she decided to give the children’s grief center a try.

2014-01-01 00.00.00-275 (2)“Every Wednesday night for two and a half years, that’s what we did,” she said, with the family driving about an hour to the Lansing center.

It gave the family a place to be normal. People knew what to say – or not say – because they’d been there too. She’d drop her youngest off with a babysitter and the three older children were each able to meet with an age-appropriate support group, while she met with other adults who’d suffered a loss.

“It’s a little bit like when you put your bathing suit on and you’re walking down the street,” Tanya Overweg said. “Everybody’s looking at you and you feel really awkward and weird. But when we went to Ele’s Place everybody’s in their bathing suit. You’re at the beach.”

Addressing Childhood Grief at Every Level

According to the U.S. Census and the National Alliance for Grieving Children, one in 20 children will experience the death of a parent and many more will grieve the death of a sibling, grandparent or other loved one.

Ele’s Place started in Lansing 24 years ago. It was named for Ele Stover, an 11-month-old baby girl who died, leaving behind a grieving family, including young brothers and sisters. Her mom, Betsy Stover, received guidance from the Dougy Center in Portland, Oregon, one of the first children’s grief centers in the country.

Since then, branches have opened in Flint, Ann Arbor, and Grand Rapids. All of the services offered at Ele’s Place locations are free of charge.

Art is a common method used at Ele's Place to help kids express their grief.
Art is a common method used at Ele’s Place to help kids express their grief.

Children are split into age-specific groups so they can participate in developmentally-appropriate activities to understand their grief. Trained volunteer facilitators lead the groups, with trained social workers and therapists on hand to assist if needed. Adult support groups take place on the same nights and times as the children’s groups, since many are grieving the same death.

“Kids can come here for any death that’s impactful to them,” said Kelly Ahti, Program Director for Ele’s Place in Grand Rapids. “We don’t put limits on that.”

When grief isn’t addressed at a young age, it can manifest later in life in the way of drug use, truancy, acting out and other risk-taking behaviors. Unresolved childhood grief can be linked to depression, truancy and poor school performance, aggression and violence, substance abuse, criminal behavior and suicidal tendencies.

Ahti said many times, kids don’t have a way to express their anger and grief. Many act out because they don’t have the words to express what they’re feeling. Letting kids know that what they’re experiencing and feeling is normal is important in reducing feelings of isolation.

“Even for adults, grief can feel so isolating, and for kids, they don’t have a bigger life experience to have a context for it,” Ahti said.

Along with on-site support group sessions, Ele’s Place has expanded to offer support to local school districts who need grief support for students. As a principal at Springport Middle/High School, Tanya Overweg knew exactly who to call when a group of high school students lost someone significant in their lives. A social worker from Ele’s Place came to the school and met with students for eight weeks.

“It is an amazing mission,” said Laurie Baumer, Ele’s Place President and CEO. “To help kids at one of the most tragic times of their life … there’s nothing more satisfying and more meaningful for our staff and volunteers. They know they’re really making a difference.”

A New Normal

Tanya and Todd Overweg with their children. Photo courtesy of the Overweg family.
Tanya and Todd Overweg with their children.
Photo courtesy of the Overweg family.

For Tanya Overweg and children Luke, 15, Jana, 13, Hope, 9, and Stone, 8, happy memories of a husband and father are still regularly shared. Tanya Overweg said it could have been hard to talk about, but the family’s experiences at Ele’s Place mean it’s been something they’ve always talked about.

Todd Overweg with daughter Jana. Photo courtesy of the Overweg family.
Todd Overweg with daughter Jana.
Photo courtesy of the Overweg family.

“I think our ability to continue to talk about him makes it easier for other people talk about him too,” she said.

Since his death, the family has faced a number of firsts without Todd Overweg, including Friday football games, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and more. Tanya Overweg said she’s been very intentional in helping her kids get through those times together. Their first Father’s Day, the family wrote notes about their dad, attached them to balloons, and let them go. At Thanksgiving, everyone wrote down favorite memories and what they were thankful for.

It’s gotten easier over the years, but there are still sad moments.

“We just have a new normal and it’s what we’ve created,” Tanya Overweg said. “I really don’t think we would be here without what we got from Ele’s Place.”

If you know a grieving child who could use some support, contact Ele’s Place. If there’s not an Ele’s Place location near you, search for grief support at www.childrengrieve.org/find-support. If you’d like to support Ele’s Place, volunteer opportunities exist and there are many ways to get involved

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Photo credit for Ele’s Place photos: Julie Bitely

 

 

 

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