WAUKESHA (WITI) – At some point in our lives, we’re all faced with loss. But for those who have their entire lives ahead of them, dealing with death can be difficult. Children grieve in different ways than adults. There’s a local group that aims to take some of the pain away: Healing Hearts of Waukesha County.
“It’s okay to cry,” Jaden Medal told FOX6 News as he played with Legos.
It’s a powerful lesson from a boy who has experienced his fair share of tears. When he was four years old, Jaden became a big brother to triplets. But the joy of welcoming siblings was quickly overshadowed by a sudden loss.
“That night, Owen was lying on his stomach. He couldn’t breathe,” Jaden recalled.
Owen was just six-and-a-half months old.
“The autopsy showed that it was actually just SIDS. His heart spontaneously stopped," Melissa Bissing said.
It's a tragedy that left Bissing’s heart broken.
“I am constantly reliving what had happened, trying to pretend or function in a normal world when I am screaming on the inside. Like, I’m not normal. This is not normal,” Bissing said.
While dealing with her grief, Bissing’s oldest son was also struggling with a silent, emotional pain. Jaden was confused when paramedics arrived and kept him isolated in a separate room.
“I thought they were doing that to keep me from seeing my brother," Jaden said.
“All he knows is that his brother went to bed and he never saw his brother awake ever again. He felt he was stuck in his room and never got to say goodbye to his brother,” Bissing said.
Keeping that bottled up inside manifested in other ways.
“After Owen’s passing I noticed a difference in Jaden. He was very withdrawn, quiet. He wouldn’t talk to me about the night Owen got sick or when we were in the hospital," Bissing said.
That’s when Bissing found “Healing Hearts of Waukesha County.” Chris Beck is the group’s executive director.
“It’s peer-to-peer support,” Chris explained.
Meetings take place on Monday nights in the basement of First United Methodist Church in Waukesha for kids between the ages of four and 18 dealing with loss.
"Death, divorce, abandonment, separation, incarceration, immigration, military deployment -- really anything that takes an important person in your life away from you – that’s loss. That’s what children are grieving," Beck said.
Now in its fifth year, the group has helped more than 450 participants. The challenge is comforting kids who may not understand death is permanent.
“The little ones have sort of a magical thinking that perhaps they’ll come back," Beck said.
Facilitators are not therapists or councilors – but rather retired teachers and volunteers who have also experienced loss at a young age. Whatever brings these broken hearts to meetings at the center of it all is love.
“To love someone is to open yourself up for loss, and that’s going to hurt. But it does help to understand the reason this does hurt is because there was love. That love is never going to go away. You’ll always love them. We're not here to fix or give answers. We are largely here to listen," Beck said.
You can sense the darkness and despair inside these young souls.
"It`s a realization that they can lose someone. That brings all kinds of other fears," Beck said.
It’s the kind of love Jaden still feels toward Owen. Love that’s no longer clouded – feelings no longer repressed.
"He was a great brother," Jaden said.
“It was an all-around totally different kid: happier, brighter, smarter, able to function. You could just tell his mind was clear," Bissing said.
Today, they find comfort in the heart that keeps beating. Owen was an organ donor and a girl in Minnesota got his heart.
"It`s probably something I will think about every day for the rest of my life," Bissing said.
“Healing hearts” meets every Monday for 12 weeks. Some families decided to come back and participate multiple times. While the kids are meeting parents also gather in groups and discuss the same topics. Healing Hearts is absolutely free to all participants.
"They are amazing because they help so much kids through this," Jaden said.