Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Riley's story: After brother's suicide, teen shares how she deals with grief, offers advice to those who want to help


MLIVE ~ “I’m Riley Gortsema and I’m here because my brother committed suicide two years ago.”
That’s how Riley introduces herself at a grief support group for teens.

Tough words to say, but knowing she is with others who are coping with similar losses makes it just a bit easier.

Riley and Travis, two blond, athletic kids just 22 months apart in age, looked like twins and played together as best friends. They shot hoops, went wakeboarding and worked out together. Riley looked up to her big brother and followed in his footsteps.
“He was the most popular kid at school,” she says. “He was one of those kids who fit into every group.”

As a sophomore at Calvin Christian High School, Travis was called up to play varsity football. One Friday night, he scored a dramatic game-winning touchdown.

Four nights later, he hanged himself in his bedroom.

Travis’ family struggled with sorrow and disbelief.

His mother, Julie Gortsema, says medical professionals told her two severe concussions close together might have changed Travis’ brain chemistry, leading him to an action he would not have contemplated otherwise.

Riley’s world was shaken to the core. As a 14-year-old freshman, she suddenly went from being “Travis’ little sister” to “Are you the girl whose brother died?”

The support she received at her school, from her friends and from Travis’ friends was “amazing,” says Riley, now 16 and a junior. Even so, it became hard to relate to her friends sometimes.

“They move on, and you know you don’t,” she says. “They don’t have to go home to parents who are crying, to a family of three that used to be four.”

She found people who understood her pain through Starlight Ministries, a Christian grief support community.

Every two weeks, she goes to a teen group. There, she paints pictures, reads Bible verses, writes in a journal. There’s a room where she can break dishes or rip up phone books to get out her anger.

Sometimes, a discussion topic is raised, and the teens share their thoughts on it. Riley often finds herself saying things she had never even says to herself before.

“You just say stuff you didn’t know was bugging you, and when you do, you feel so much lighter,” she says.

“When you go through grief, your heart actually feels heavy, and your stomach feels like there’s a twister in it.”

With her friends at school, she often doesn’t talk about her grief, and that’s fine with her. “Sometimes, those friends are my escape,” she says. “I have some friends that are so funny. When I hang out with them, it’s like an escape, and I don’t want to talk about it with them.”

Deciding when to talk about her sorrow is a choice she wants to make.

It’s painful when people ask her about brother at inappropriate times — particularly in front of others.
“If it looks like I’m doing fine, please leave me alone. I don’t feel like crying in front of people — or before a math test,” she says.

What makes her feel better are signs that people care, such as notes and Bible verses left in her locker.
“Baked goods are always welcome,” she says with a smile.

And knowing others grieve for Travis helps, too.
“What I think makes me feel people care is when I go to Travis’ grave site, and there’s a worn path,” she says. “People put rocks, seashells, golf balls on it.
“There’s physical evidence that I’m not the only thinking about him.”

Learn more about Teen Grief and Loss Treatment

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