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Grief group helps teens bear loss

‘It hit me like a bag of bricks: Wow ... It’s one of those thing that never goes away’

Dennis LeBlanc, standing, and Annie Diemand-Bucci, left, are out to dinner at China Gourmet with Greenfield High School Students Eric Shippee, Ashley Lowell and Patrick Crowningshield.  Recorder/Paul Franz

Dennis LeBlanc, standing, and Annie Diemand-Bucci, left, are out to dinner at China Gourmet with Greenfield High School Students Eric Shippee, Ashley Lowell and Patrick Crowningshield. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »

It’s nearly graduation time at Greenfield High School and schools everywhere — another one of those times when some look out at the crowd and feel the pain of missing someone key to their own lives.

“There’s going to be something missing at graduation for me,” said senior Eric Shippee, whose mother died in the fall of his junior year, as he addressed fellow members of the school’s bereavement support group recently. “At least now I have other people who I know will possibly be having the same feelings.”

Simply carrying their backpacks, their assignments and pressures of tests, activities and social interactions may be hard enough for most students. But for the seven members of the bereavement group, including four seniors, grieving for a sibling, parent or other family member or friend can be a hidden burden, says Dennis LeBlanc of the Pastoral Counseling Center of Franklin County, who’s volunteered as its co-leader for five years.

Grieving for an important person in your life never really ends, he stresses.

“It’s very clear to me that grief work isn’t about closure,” says LeBlanc, who began the model of meeting weekly with a group of half a dozen or so students at GHS after trying a community-based program for grieving children and their families in 2007. “It’s about learning to carry the load through the next stage.”

LeBlanc, who’s co-led the GHS group with volunteer Ann Diemand of Wendell, says he’s been talking with other schools about launching bereavement groups. There’s a grounding that members provide each other by sharing feelings in a safe setting, he said.

Shippee, a chorus member who plans to attend Holyoke Community College in the fall and eventually to become a music teacher, says the peer group “helped me remember the little things, like how me and my mom used to go to the Green River Festival every year.”

Alex Glasson, who moved to Greenfield in 2012 to live with his aunt and uncle after the death of his father — years after he’d already lost his mother — says, “One of the hardest parts is the events that happen, like graduation, when you realize this person isn’t going to be there ... (Other friends) try to empathize but they really can’t. It’s one of those things you can’t really understand until it’s happened to you. At my best friend’s graduation party, it hit me like a bag of bricks: Wow … It’s one of those things that never goes away.”

The support group has “opened up multiple social circles” for him at the school, says Glasson, who plans to attend Virginia Polytechnic Institute in the fall to study engineering. He recalls one session at which group members were asked to draw their family dinner table when they were younger.

“You start thinking about all the things we did, that we thought weren’t that big of a deal, like family dinners … or like Christmas Eve,” he says. “My mom passed away when I was really young, 2 or 3, but all the (rest of the) family getting together on Christmas Eve, opening presents, making Christmas cookies … you think about how much those experiences mean to you.”

Ashley Lowell, who plans to attend Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in the fall, where she hopes to continue playing volleyball, lost her mother when she was 3 and her grandmother when she was 7. She was encouraged to join the group by guidance counselor Scott Rice after she moved to Greenfield the beginning of her sophomore year.

Knowing that anything discussed in the group “all stays in the room,” she says, “I’ve learned to be more open telling people about my life, about my past, to people who’ve had death in their life. I’m not a very open person about that,” but the support group has helped relieve the grief she still carries, despite a keen sense of humor.

LeBlanc calls the resilience of the nearly 30 students he’s worked with over the years inspiring and a testament to their ability to open up to one another, care for one another and themselves over time.

“You can be walking down the halls and carrying the heavy load of today, and suddenly realize that today’s the day that … maybe it’s the anniversary (of the death) or the day they went to a concert together … and nobody knows. So the capacity to at least share that with others and to know that a few others kind of get it, I’ve just found very meaningful.”

At one session, LeBlanc handed out markers and had everyone depict their families around the dinner table when they were younger.

That raised key memories for group members, including Patrick Crowningshield, recalling the death of his grandfather who had lived with the family for six or seven years and served as a father figure.

“I remembered my grandfather sitting across from me, using his crude farmer lingo all the time,” says Crowningshield. “It just brought up memories of when I’d go up to the farm in Heath and ride the tractor with him and move hay bales.”

A call firefighter in Greenfield who plans to attend Greenfield Community College to study fire science so he can eventually join the force, he says the group has taught him to “talk to people about pretty much everything. And it made me realize that whenever I get sad, I work and just don’t stop working until I can think of something besides what happened. It’s helped me figure out that’s what I need to do.”

LeBlanc wrapped up the group’s year this spring by handing each member a seashell to mark the ending as a new beginning.

“Nature tells us that all the time,” he says. “The life that was in the seashell leaves this remnant behind, and it’s a reminder that something beautiful used to live there. Even as you approach milestones ahead, the beauty that was in the shell remains in you. I really appreciate that you guys get that and you really carry the loved ones in you in very meaningful ways.”

You can reach Richie Davis at: rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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