“Hi, my name is Jen. I bring my daughter Stephanie tonight. She is 16 years old. On July 2, 2017 we lost her father, my ex-husband and dear friend, after his 81 day battle with Anaplastic Thyroid Cancer. He was only 50.”
I can remember the first time I had to say those scripted words…it was during Stephanie’s Safe Harbor orientation – just the two of us and one staff member. That time started with a video and then masterfully moved us through the rooms. We were eased into the healing power and raw emotion of the space. There were books about grief, blankets of comfort, games and cushy pillows. They knew we would need time to process the art on the walls….the sadness of an unknown child who simply colored “Daddy I miss you” on her picture. You realize you are there because you child is not ok and needs this level of support. I hoped and prayed that this would help. At the end of that first visit Steph and I practiced that scripted introduction they have written for you – that parents and children say as each session starts. I was so grateful for the practice as I choked on the words – I would not have wanted to debut that in front of a crowd.
How did we find ourselves at Safe Harbor – a program that requires a scheduling extravaganza every Wednesday as we pick-up early from cheer practice, have a quick dinner and then make the 45 minute drive to Abington, PA – arriving home by 8:30 pm exhausted?
Because this past September my youngest was angry at just about everything in her life. From her cheer stunting to doing the dishes of others – anything would set her off. The coaches called…I dried her tears when she would rage about life being unfair. She would hear how a kid was mad at his dad and think how she would kill to be fighting with John. Her friends didn’t understand and she didn’t expect them to. While I agreed her life was unfair, I was firm that she needed to learn to control her anger – it was not going to serve her. The guidance counselor and therapist were amazing but she needed peers who understood. She needed to be able to talk to other teens and be able to cry…and laugh…and remember her father with other kids who knew her loss. I had heard about Safe Harbor and cried during the intake call asking the volunteer on the other end of the phone to “please help my child.” I felt like I was failing to help her and knew I was doing the right thing. It was just another weird event in a series of weird events that had started on April 12th – day 1 of the 81.
Stephanie jumped at the chance to attend – she knew she needed it. And now she won’t miss a session for anything. It has become so important that my older daughter will volunteer to drive home from college to take her down if I think I might be late in getting here to Abington (the older daughter is amazing and can be found here).
There is an optional parent component available while Steph is off with the teens – and while it sounds strange, I go. I was hesitant to join at first thinking that it would be filled with spouses who had lost – and really what could I contribute to that? I was shocked to learn that while there are spouses there are also ex’s like me – who were friends with their ex and equally devastated he/she is gone – and some grandparents as well who lost their own child and now raise a grandchild. I have mad respect for them.
There is kvetching and commiserating. We share our great ideas on helping our children through the process and pass around the tissue box when we admit that helplessness overwhelms us. Our children are processing a grief that we ourselves have never experienced. For those with teens we share how hard it is to carry our children through the saddest time of their lives while struggle to give them the independence they crave. We talk about our shared disappointment towards the family of the parent who died (married or not – it just doesn’t go well). It is a Breakfast Club type of group filled with people I probably wouldn’t bump into in my normal circles, and I have come to cherish them.
Steph has learned that whatever she is feeling is just all ok. She has also realized, all on her own, to appreciate the time she had with John and knows that in many ways big and small she is actually lucky. Her school and home remained stable, she didn’t have to move. She has a big blended family that, while loud and annoying, is here to support her unconditionally. And, most importantly, she knows that John would have fought for more days with her – for just one more hug- there are many children at Safe Harbor dealing with the loss of a parent who chose to permanently leave.
Last week I shared with the group how well my daughters were doing. This was not bragging, I was sharing my amazement. The big one has amazed herself by just surviving since she originally thought her world would fall apart. The middle one is moving through her senior year like a champ, missing her buddy desperately but determined as ever to make him proud. The little one flying through Junior year with friends, hopefully a driver’s license in the coming weeks, and knows the void he left can not be filled. I shared the amount of support I put in place for them – the maneuvering that is done – the pixie dust I sprinkle – sometimes they realize sometimes they do not – to relieve any little amount of stress – the endless number of times I have solved a problem with my credit card. I share how supportive my amazing husband is and I could not live without the few close friends who check in often and tell me I’m amazing (when you write about me make sure to spell my name correctly – it is Dannielle – with two n’s).
At the end of that last session we went out to the hallway and the teens were coming out of their room. Stephanie was hysterical – it was a sadness I had not seen in her since she learned the meaning of hospice and that her father would be entering. Mamma Bear kicked in and I ushered her into a conference room so she could escape and bawl on my shoulder. I felt my baby fall into my arms as we waited for the others to go down in the elevator. She just kept crying.
What set her off? She had to talk about it…every last detail. That night’s session was about organizing thoughts, and learning to be able to speak them…about his illness and his death – the sadness she experienced walking into hospice finding him already unconscious – holding his hand saying goodbye…never talking with him again. You see, the facilitators know what it is like to explain the details to a new college roommate or an employer. And they want to make sure Steph now has the coping skills that they wish they had had to get through those explanations.
During orientation I didn’t really pay attention to the video – I was not really even able to process the words the narrator was speaking. I was still in shock that he was gone and was exhausted from watching my children in so much pain. Stephie was sitting next to me so angry and a little broken. This is really only for those who can “go there,” but in those moments I pictured John sitting in the chair across from Stephanie – right there at that orientation…just like he had sat near us so many times – at concerts and parent-teacher conferences. He was looking at her with his usual attitude he saved just for me in these situations, “Steph, your mom is crazy but always right about this type of thing – god knows she dragged me to all this stuff for you guys plenty of times in the past…Stephie, I am sorry you need to be here, but you need this.”
His spirit whispered to her “I love you” as he left us there to heal.
And at Safe Harbor we have both found the perfect place…surrounded by the perfect support system…to do just that.