One mid-summer evening, a few days after Father's Day, Tom Hayden, Senior Engagement Editor at The News-Press, visited Valerie's House and took time to sit in with one of our teen grief support groups.
Tom shared his experience and impressions of the evening in a thoughtful column that offers a look at what goes on at Valerie's House:
I admire the courage, honesty of teenagers working to overcome the death of loved ones
Displaying courage well beyond their years, 20 teens sat in a circle, sharing their stories of deep loss. Each one of them had experienced the death of a parent, a sibling, a grandparent. They were open, honest. They were forced to grow up too early, but their strength, faith and their friends at Valerie’s House provided a relevant and important compass.
When the group first sat down on a warm evening a few days after Father’s Day, outside, on the pavement, near the old house on Fowler Street, the first questions asked of them by Valerie’s House founder and director Angela Melvin were to share their name, where they go to school, who they lost and on a scale of one to 10 how they are feeling.
I was sitting off to the side, listening. I’ve known Melvin for several years since she started this remarkable place, called Valerie’s House, named for her mom, who died when Melvin was 10. It is a place where kids and adults can come and share in their grief of losing a loved one. This house works because of Melvin, her staff and the people who find hope, inspiration, relief and warmth in sharing their feelings with each other.
On this evening, the teenagers surrounding Melvin were still hurting, the losses still fresh, but there they were showing unimaginable strength, telling people, some of them just meeting for the first time, their deepest thoughts. I was seated about 10 feet from the group, but I could barely hear the first boy who spoke.
What was so amazing about this young man, and how the group works, is that by the end of the hour discussion, I could hear every word from this boy. He had started the evening settling back against a basketball goal post. But by the end, he was sitting up, really engaged in the conversation. He even played two rap songs, he had written, for the group. One girl, who was skeptical about what kind of music this young man could produce, told him how surprised she was, and how amazing his songs were.The kids wanted to know how they could get copies.They were impressed.
None of these teens said they felt like a 10 as they went around the circle. A 10 just wasn’t possible at this stage of their lives, the loss still too consuming. It was only a couple days after Father’s Day, so for many of them, who had recently lost dads, the sadness was magnified.
Many of the teens talked about how their school grades had dropped since their losses. School didn’t seem to matter as much, but they were trying, searching for a way to feel normal again.
As the hour progressed, nearly every kid engaged in the conversation. They weren’t afraid to open up and talk about their loved one. And that’s the point of Valerie’s House. It’s about being able to share a common pain with people experiencing many of the same feelings and emotions. Valerie’s House is about listening and understanding that this type of loss isn’t something you have to hide.
The house isn’t about leaving death outside the front door. It’s about bringing it in and remembering the person and sharing with others memories of the father, who took them camping; the mother, who was always there with a solution, the grandparent, who had a wonderful smile and was so caring, and the brother or sister who may have been annoying at times but was always a best friend.
Everyone that participates at Valerie's House is asked to sign a confidentiality agreement so that the people there and what they share is protected. It's important for trust within the group.
In a time when the world always seems to fight, when immigrant children are taken from their parents, when kids die in what should be the learning sanctuary of a school and the Parkland kids fight back to keep it from happening again, I was able to witness first-hand the strength of youth, the amazing resiliency of youth, the resurrection of spirit after much of it had been shattered.
One a scale of one to 10, I was probably about a seven when I first sat down to listen to these kids. I was a 10 when I left.
Editor's note: Tom Hayden's wife is operations director at Valerie's House. Tom Hayden is Senior Engagement Editor at The News-Press.
This column originally appeared in The News-Press on June 27, 2018. Read the original News-Press column here.
To learn more about Valerie’s House and its programs, or to volunteer or donate, click here.