MELLON | Face to face with death and its aftermath, teens don't - WDRB 41 Louisville News

MELLON | Face to face with death and its aftermath, teens don't flinch

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Keith Pennington and mom Kim Y. Johnson in their Pittsburgh home Keith, whose father died in 2014, discussed his grief in a teen group at Highmark Caring Place and is part of the Post-Gazette documentary, "Journeys Out of Grief." Keith Pennington and mom Kim Y. Johnson in their Pittsburgh home Keith, whose father died in 2014, discussed his grief in a teen group at Highmark Caring Place and is part of the Post-Gazette documentary, "Journeys Out of Grief."

By Steve Mellon / WDRB Contributor from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In late January 2015 my editors invited me to join a team of journalists producing a series of stories exploring grief. I was sent a written proposal. “What happens to us when we lose a loved one?” it asked.

A few months later, one answer came in the form a sharp whack as a young woman pounded her fists on a table. “I’m so angry,” she cried. Angry that her mother had died and left her alone at age 13. Angry at the friends at school who told her they were annoyed because “all you talk about is your mother.”

“Why are you being so sad?” they asked. “You should get over it.”

Those sitting around her in a small, well-lit room in Downtown Pittsburgh reacted to the outburst not with shock or surprise but with easy acceptance. All were teenagers who had endured their own losses, shed their own tears, cried out in their own anger and confusion.

The teens gathered every other week at Highmark Caring Place, a Pittsburgh organization that provides support for children and families who’ve experienced the death of a loved one. There the teens explored their grief and together sought answers to the question, What happens to us when we lose a loved one?

They discussed guilt, because one girl lives with shattering regret that she left her house five minutes before her father died. “I should have been there to hold his hand and comfort him,” she said. “And I wasn’t. And I’ll have to live with that.”

And they talked about identity, because too often the teens were seen by friends and teachers not as Troy or Sara or David or Kariann, but as “that guy whose father died” or “the girls whose brother was shot.”

The 11 teens in the Caring Place group, along with their families and the Caring Place staff, allowed me to sit in on those sessions. This provided an extraordinary opportunity to learn about each participant’s journey through grief.

But there was a catch.

Those at the Caring Place insisted I first attend several weeks of training, then enter the teen group as a volunteer. In addition to reporting, I’d be expected to provide support, companionship and acceptance.

You’ll have to wear two hats, said Terese Vorsheck, Caring Place director.

And I’d be expected to respect a rule: Everything said within the walls of the Caring Place remains confidential. Ms. Vorsheck understood the value of allowing the teens and families to tell their stories of grief and loss to a larger audience, to share the lessons they’d learned, but said the effort had to be balanced with the Caring Place goal of providing a safe place for individuals to talk frankly and honestly about painful events. Confidentiality is a must, she said.

Once the final session was complete, she said, we could reconstitute the teen group for an on-the-record meeting that we would record on videotape. That session, and a series of interviews with five members of the group, became the basis for the Post-Gazette documentary, “Journeys Out of Darkness.”

The teen group meetings began in early April and, from the beginning, members were breathtakingly fearless when talking about their losses.

No topic was off the table. Sometimes members wept. They admitted confusion and some felt they’d been cheated out of an essential part of life. They worried about their surviving parents, about each other. Sometimes they soared over their pain and created moments of whimsy and laughter.

These discussions offered vivid descriptions of a world in which I had no access, either as a volunteer or journalist. Group members told stories of deep, deep sorrow, of darkness that seemed unimaginable.

Sometimes it was like watching a truck with locked doors roll down a hill. I could do nothing but watch.

And yet I was constantly amazed at how the teens, each enduring the most painful of human experiences at such a young and vulnerable age, discovered strength, hope and joy by coming together.

Kevin Sunderman, a veteran volunteer who coordinated and guided the teens, reminded them on a number of occasions that, by sharing their stories on video, they were assuming the role of teachers or guides, offering lessons in navigating this unavoidable aspect of living a full life.

Many described in detail the moment in which they learned about or witnessed the death of a parent or sibling, the moment in which a world had been cracked and splintered by the uttering of single, short sentences -- “Your dad is dead” -- or the drawing of a final breath. I would hear these stories several times in the coming weeks and months.

In a separate interview months later, two of the teens, Jen and Sam Hurrell, recalled hearing news of the death of their brother Nathan. Like all other stories told by the teens in the group, it is heartbreaking. And with each telling, the Hurrell sisters reentered a landscape in which love transformed into pain and yearning.

In the early morning hours of a summer morning in 2015, the sisters and their parents David and Dee huddled anxiously in their Penn Hills home for word from Nathan, who rarely missed a curfew and wasn’t responding to phone calls or text messages.

Sometime around 3 a.m., headlights from an approaching car speared the darkness of their street. The father of one of Nathan’s friends had arrived to make real the family’s nightmare: Nathan had been shot.

“You’re a liar,” Jen yelled at him. Sam had a different reaction: She collapsed onto the living room floor.

Later, when Nathan’s death was confirmed, Sam walked into her brother’s room and slipped into his bed. There, in his blankets and pillows, Nathan’s smell lingered, and this gave Sam a measure of comfort. She could feel his presence. “He was telling me, ‘Everything’s going to be OK,” she said.

This is what happens to us when we lose a loved one. We rage against the reality and pain and inequity of death. We collapse, we seek comfort. Our love becomes a yearning. The better of us reach out and share our experiences, in the hope that doing so will give some meaning to a death that seems unfair and pointless.

“If telling my story can help someone,” Sam said. “I’ll feel like [Nathan] died for a purpose.”

To view the documentary, please click here http://newsinteractive.post-gazette.com/journeys-out-of-darkness/

Steve Mellon: smellon@post-gazette.com

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