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Hannah: "I can't tell you how great it felt to let all of my emotions out."

Hannah, 15, lost her older cousin, Gerard, when he was 23. Gerard was more like a brother than a cousin to Hannah — and much more besides. She and her younger brothers and sister, along with their parents, began attending the Caring Place about a half-year after Gerard died.

"He Would Reach for Your Hand and Touch Your Heart"

Gerard is the most incredible person I have ever known and will ever know. The words to best describe Gerard can be found in the eulogy that his surgeon gave at his funeral: Gerard "would reach for your hand and touch your heart."

He was the big brother I never had, the person I went to for advice and that special someone who could always put a smile on my face. When Gerard was 16, he found that he had bone cancer. His six-year battle with cancer consisted of multiple surgeries, countless chemotherapy treatments, and scans almost every week to monitor his progress.

Finally, though, he received the news that his doctors could no longer help him. I actually remember very vividly the day my parents told my siblings and me that he was terminal. I didn't want to believe that my mentor, my best friend, and my hero was going to leave me for forever.

But my cousin did finally die at the young age of 23. I was in total disbelief. Over time, we all slowly came to realize he was gone. We were, and still are, heartbroken. We couldn't talk about Gerard without bursting into tears. I tried to avoid even talking about him at all, because I knew I would be overcome by sadness.

Emotionally on Different Planets

When my mom asked how I was doing, I would quickly reply that I was fine, not wanting to confide in her what was really happening to me. I had no support from any of my friends, so I felt the need to isolate myself. I was battling grief all by myself, because I knew my parents and siblings were busy dealing with their own pain. Emotionally, my family and I were on different planets.

About six months after Gerard died, a family at our school gave us information about a center called the Caring Place. We went in for orientation, and I have to admit I was shaking because I was so nervous. I wasn't sure if I could discuss my feelings with total strangers.

Letting It All Out

As we walked in, I saw many children in the same situation as we were. The ages varied from preschoolers to teenagers, and this was when it first hit me that I wouldn't be alone in my grief. Still, I was skeptical that some of the others teens I was sitting amongst had the same feelings: anger, sadness, isolation, and pain.

After a meal, we went to our individual rooms to get the feel of what each session would be like. The volunteer asked us to share some history about ourselves, and I immediately started sobbing. I hadn't expressed my grief at all up to that point, and I can't tell you how great it felt to let all of my emotions out.

I also felt unusually comfortable. The volunteer had the most empathetic look on her face that I had ever seen, and the other teens that were there with me placed their hands on my back and let me cry. Then they started crying as well, and I comforted them as best as I knew how. Orientation finally gave me the reassurance that I needed; I wasn't the only one experiencing the loss of someone I loved.

My family unanimously agreed to come back, and we returned the following fall.

To this day, it astonishes me how the volunteers eased us into talking. I didn't think I had the ability to say one word about Gerard, but I ended up being the person that talked the most in my group. The activities that we did easily brought up memories, allowing each and every one of us the opportunity to share memories.

Balloon Release

One of my favorite activities that I think was a turning point in my grief process was the release of balloons on the bridge. We all wrote little messages to our loved one, and put them into a heart shaped balloon. We then blew them up and decorated the outside. I felt the need to decorate mine with Superman emblems, because I think Gerard was his biggest fan. "My superman" is how I refer to Gerard all the time.

Once we finished, we went right to the middle of the bridge and released them. I felt peaceful and calm as I watched my balloon slowly float away. I know that Gerard received my message. This was one of the last activities we did, and from that point on, there were no more "eggshells" with me, as my mom calls my unstable feelings. I laugh, I cry, but I remember what an unbelievable role model he is. He will always have a special place in my heart.

I have the Caring Place to thank for their compassion, advice, kindness, and their marvelous ability to listen. Without them, I would be wandering around aimlessly, frozen in my grief. There will always be sadness lingering, but the Caring Place reminded me of all the great times I had with Gerard. I was lost and then found by the Caring Place.