I work at the Highmark Caring Place — a place where kids come after someone important to them has died.

You might think it’s a sad place. And there are sad moments, it’s true. But on the whole, the Caring Place is one of the most positive and joyful places I’ve ever encountered.

A lot of hope, and healing, happens here — right along with the pain and intense longing for those who aren’t here anymore. A fuller range of true human emotion and awareness is shared here than anywhere else I know.

I get to talk with — to listen to — kids and teens who have gone through some of the deepest and most disruptive experiences that anyone can undergo. They are the experts in grief. They teach me what grief is about.

One of the most profound teachers was Megan Leskanic, who I talked with throughout her teen years at the Caring Place.

At 10, Megan got into her family’s small plane, just like many times before. But this time, after take-off, there was engine trouble. The plane went down. Megan and her mom survived. Her dad and eight-year-old brother Danny did not.

Megan today with her family: husband Don, daughter Lillyanne, and son Daniel

Megan today with her family: husband Don, daughter Lillyanne, and son Daniel.

Megan first came to the Caring Place at age 12. Over the next five years I watched her transform into a confident, strong, perceptive young woman. She had remarkable insight into all she had experienced, from the pain of the loss to the hope she discovered at the Caring Place. Now married and the mother of two children, Megan generously agreed to let me compile some insights and experiences from interviews she did during her years at the Caring Place.

As Megan recently looked back on the words from her teenage years, she wrote:

“It all still holds true. Learning how to be a ‘normal’ human again and just learning to relax and breathe are almost near impossible tasks at the beginning of any grief story. I am so thankful that I had the Caring Place and was able to find my voice — that I was able to see that the impossible wasn’t so impossible with the help of others. I hope that my story will provide a little light — a little hope — to someone who has lost everything.”

I’m honored to share her words, and light, to celebrate the 10th annual Children’s Grief Awareness Day (November 15) and raise awareness all year round.

“your world goes dark…”

When you lose someone that has been in your life since you were born, your world goes dark. You shut yourself out from the world, you close yourself off. It’s like you’re in a dark tunnel by yourself.

I felt like there was no hope of going on with my life or having fun or making new friendships. It was much more than sadness. Being sad is when you lose your championship game or something — this was so much deeper. It took over everything I did.

Your life feels like it’s shattered in a million pieces. And there’s no way of fixing it. You have anger, hate, sadness, confusion — so many different emotions inside that you never had, all at one time. You wonder, how am I going to manage these millions of feelings running around in me?

Your whole personality changes when you go through the loss of a loved one, because that was your life, and it’s been taken away. You try to tell other people how you feel, but they don’t understand, so it hurts you even more.

“afraid…angry…alone”

I was scared, and scared to tell anyone I was scared, because I was a kid, and I didn’t think anyone would understand. I was scared to go on, scared to grow up without a dad and a brother.

With a parent, you feel like they’re supposed to be here guiding you. When your dad is taken away, how do you go through life? I thought I didn’t have a future.

I was 10 years old when the plane crashed and Danny was eight. I was the older one and I was supposed to look out for him. I struggled so much with the thought that I didn’t do my job as an older sibling to protect him. Why did he have to die and not me?

After they died, I felt like my father and my brother were watching over me, and I didn’t want to hurt them more, or make them mad. I felt like I was doing something wrong by laughing or having fun. I thought, Danny didn’t get his chance to have fun, so why should I? I felt it was wrong to laugh and have fun because I should be hurting and I shouldn’t be smiling. That’s how I felt every day.

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The relationship I had with my mother after the accident — I wouldn’t call it a relationship. I would call it — surviving together. Just there, dealing with each other.

I thought I was the only one hurting. I didn’t want to talk to her because I didn’t feel that she understood me. It took me a while to realize that we were both hurting. Until I did, my only thought was, “Wow, I’m completely by myself.”

The two years between the accident and when we came to the Caring Place were full of battles with my mother, because I didn’t want to go out and do anything. I was scared — what if something happened to me? I didn’t want my mom to go through losing another child. I thought I had to protect myself. I didn’t go out with my friends, didn’t have birthday parties, didn’t go to movies, didn’t go to the swimming pool.

I didn’t want my mom to go out either. Every time she went out, I was afraid she was never going to return. I would wait up until she got back because I was afraid that I was going to lose someone else. I was very protective of her. I had to go everywhere with her. It was more than being afraid; it took over everything I did.

I was angry at relatives, and even my mom — I never meant to be, but I was angry because I saw my mom and her other family members still having their family, where I lost everyone on my father’s side. He was an only child, so I lost a whole side of my family. The anger got to the point where I would sit in my room and not talk to anyone because I was so jealous of everything everyone had. It hurt me. And hurt turned into anger. Instead of crying or letting it out, I just lashed out at people.

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I couldn’t have fun, but I couldn’t express my pain. Family members and friends told me, “You have to be strong for your mom.” I took that as meaning I should keep my shame and guilt locked inside. I shut myself off. I felt like I already hurt her by not getting my brother out of the plane. So I didn’t want to open up and hurt her more by telling her how I felt. Being strong meant I can’t cry, I can’t show my emotions. In a way it meant that I have to forget my father and brother because if I thought about them, I would start crying and let all my emotions out.

So I tucked those memories away along with my feelings. I held it all in until I went to my room and closed my door and screamed into my pillow. My room was kind of my shelter away from the world.

At first, people say they’re proud of you for being strong, even if they allow you to cry a little at first. After a while, though, they get tired of all this grieving. It bothers them if you’re upset. It’s like they feel, “Ok, you’ve cried enough; here’s the real world. Why are you still hurt on holidays or their birthdays or family functions?”

I felt very alone. I thought there was no one in the world that felt like I did. I was the outcast, the stranger, the one looked down upon, the weird one at school. My friends didn’t understand what it was like to lose a dad or a brother. They would just sit there, looking at me, not knowing what to say. You know the accident is what everyone is thinking about. They wanted to know what happened. And I wanted to tell them about what happened. But they were scared to ask me.

I always felt like everything was hush-hush around me. My friends felt like they couldn’t say, “my dad and I went and did this,” or “my brother and I did that.”

I would tell them, “You can talk to me. It might hurt a little, but it’s ok.” But they didn’t want to hurt me or make me cry. In reality, it hurt 10 times worse because I felt like they couldn’t be open with me. I felt like I lost my friends. I would just sit in my room and cry.

Finding the Caring Place: “we are here for each other”

When my mom found out about the Caring Place, I was still so angry and consumed with my emotions, I didn’t want to try anything or talk to anyone. I was scared that the Caring Place was going to be a bunch of people telling me how to feel, how to act, what to think.

But my mom said, “In order for us not to lose each other, we need to do something. Just try it for me.”

The first Caring Place meeting, I just kind of sat there. At the next one, I told my story. And everyone was like, “Yes, I know how you’re feeling.”

Megan participating in a Caring Place group session as a young teen.

Megan participating in a Caring Place group session as a young teen.

After a while I realized that this is one of the best places you could go, because they don’t force anything, they don’t pressure you, they’re just there purely to help you. And in return you learn how to help others. It’s like the Pledge we say at every meeting: “I am here for you, you are here for me, we are here for each other.”

I learned that I’m not the only person going through this. I was with other people my age that had gone through the same thing. They’re experiencing the awkwardness at school and with family members. As a group, you come up with ideas and give each other advice. People share experiences from their life, and you can take them and apply them to your life.

At the Caring Place, I also saw that there were always adults in the teen and youth groups. I thought they were therapists at first, but they were volunteers who were there just to support us. A lot of them had also lost somebody. That made me feel so much better and safer and more secure, because they knew how I felt and they weren’t there to judge me, analyze me, tell me how to feel. They were volunteers giving from their time and their hearts, caring enough to come and help others.

“I learned that you can hurt…but you can also laugh”

As soon as you walk into the Caring Place, you see people laughing and talking, having a good time. When I first got here, a few kids pulled me over and they’re like, “Come on, hang out with us.” And I thought, “Is this okay?” It took a while to realize it is okay, because we all feel the same way. Just because you’re hurt doesn’t mean you can’t smile or laugh or have fun. I learned that you can hurt as much as you want, but you can also laugh as much as you want.

I became a stronger person by coming to the Caring Place because I now express my emotions instead of hiding them. I learned that it was ok to cry, to laugh, to be angry. Those aren’t bad feelings. There are no bad feelings.

I also learned that it’s ok to talk to family members or a parent about hard things. If they start crying and you start crying, that’s ok. After crying you’ll laugh. It’s just that you have to go through the grief and pain to get to the good times.

The Caring Place also helped me express and deal with my anger. If you needed to express anger, you could express it in different ways. You could sit by yourself, beat on the punching bag, or go in the game room and take out your anger on an air hockey table. Before, I felt that you couldn’t get rid of that anger. After I started opening up to my family members, the anger slowly went away. Instead of that hurt turning into anger at holidays or family vacations, I talk to them. We can all go out as a group now instead of my pushing them away.

“my mom and I have the best relationship”

It was important having my mom at the Caring Place with me because we both worked on our grief in our groups and grieved in our separate ways with people our age. But when we went home, I always had someone who knew what the Caring Place was about, who knew that you don’t have to talk if you don’t want to, but I’m there for you. That’s how we are now.

We watched each other change completely. Instead of being always sad or angry or hurt, we watched each other slowly emerge and have the relationship we do today.

I found out how my mom felt losing her husband and her son, as opposed to me losing a father and a brother. We talked about these differences. She tried explaining to me what it meant to lose a husband. And she never had the loss of a brother, so I tried telling her what it was like that I lost my best friend, my play partner, someone to watch movies with, to go build a tent and have fun with.

We worked on it together because if we didn’t, we would have lost each other. Now my mom and I have the best relationship.

Getting on with Life, Not Getting Over Loss

Megan at a Caring Place forum.

Megan at a Caring Place forum.

At the Caring Place I learned that just because people died, it doesn’t mean you don’t remember them. Instead of “getting over it,” you’re going to deal with the loss, move on and live your life, and take them and their memories with you.

That helped me a lot because I thought I had to forget about them. Now, I remember their smiles and the good times we had. I remember Danny and his sports. One of the songs my dad used to sing to me was “My Girl”, and I still sing that song and my friends still sing that song to me. That’s a good way for me to remember him. The Caring Place also helped my mom open up to tell me more about my father, and helped me ask more about my father. I listen to the stories my mom and other family members tell me, and so I learn from him even now.

Yes, it does hurt. Maybe you’re out somewhere and you realize again that they’re not with you. That tingle of pain comes back in your stomach and you’re upset. But then you realize, “I still have them inside me, and I’m glad I do.”

Coming to the Caring Place, the fear of losing my mom went away because I realized you can’t live like that. If you live in fear, you’re going to be depressed, and you’re going to not only let your parent down, you’re going to let your loved ones down who died. I realized that I don’t have anything to be ashamed of because I’m here and Danny’s not. He would be upset if I didn’t move on with my life.

The Caring Place helped me regain that trust with living.

“my light of hope at the end of that dark tunnel”

When you’re in that dark tunnel, consumed by so many feelings, you don’t want anyone to save you. Even if people try to help, you’ve shut yourself off. There’s no one else in that tunnel; it’s yourself alone.

I knew that I didn’t want to be like this, but I didn’t know how to get out of it, I didn’t know how to stop what I was feeling.

The Caring Place was my light of hope at the end of that dark tunnel. That’s where I discovered that I didn’t have to stop what I was feeling. I took it and dealt with it instead of not dealing with it.

People feel like death is something you have to shut out and push away, you can’t talk about it. But death is a part of life, and death can be dealt with. It’s ok to be sad, to be hurt, but dealing with it, talking about it, it heals with time.

Before I came to the Caring Place, I felt my life was over, but the Caring Place brought back the hope and joy of living and having fun, and that’s what the Caring Place is about.