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Fort Worth families are processing grief side-by-side with help from this local group

Erica Geisel, sitting at her kitchen table, a red and black checkerboard tablecloth covering the brown wood. In the background, a gray kitchen is piled high with appliances.
Elena Rivera
/
KERA News
Erica Geisel first went to The WARM Place, a Fort Worth organization helping grieving families, a few months after her husband's passing in fall of 2020. "[You] are able to be open about your grief, what you're experiencing what it's looking like for your family, and get input from other parents."

Across the country, close to 850,000 people have died from COVID-19 since March 2020. It's put a spotlight on grief, and how people work through loss. One Fort Worth organization has helped grieving families find community support since the 1980s.

Erica Geisel’s kitchen is full of light. She sits at her table, looking out from her windows that peer into an expansive backyard. Her Tarrant County house is tucked away, as trucks piled high with building materials drive up and down the street.

Pictures of Erica, her husband, and their two kids cover the walls. In August of 2020, her husband Dan Geisel died unexpectedly due to sleep apnea. He was 41.

“Our worlds were just turned upside down,” Geisel said. “ Really no hope in sight. It's just such a tragic thing to go through, especially with a 5- and 7-year-old at the time.”

In the midst of grief and looking for resources, Geisel's daughter asked if they were the only kids that had lost a father. She didn’t know where to turn.

Fortunately, a teacher at her daughter’s school introduced her to The WARM Place. The Fort Worth organization, which started in 1989, provides peer support for kids and families experiencing loss. Groups meet every other week for a meal and conversation.

“That opened just a whole new door for them of hope and just light in the midst of our darkness,” Geisel said. “It's a safe place for us there.”

A white, victorian house sits off of an empty sidewalk. A large stone sign with the words, "The WARM Place," are etched in bronze and gold. The house is surrounded by small, green trees.
Elena Rivera
/
KERA
The WARM Place got its start in 1989. Program Director Dana Minor explained "WARM" is an acronym, for "what about remembering me." "Being a children's grief organization, we want to continue to remember children and what they're going through," Minor said.

Designed to feel comforting, not clinical

Dana Minor, program director for The WARM Place, has been with the organization on and off since the 1990s. Along with leading volunteers and facilitators, she’s also a licensed professional counselor who worked in Fort Worth ISD.

The organization lives in a big, Victorian house with a wrap-around porch on the southside of Fort Worth. The first level has rooms where the groups meet, separated by barn doors. The rooms are decorated with colorful rugs, murals and photos of people’s loved ones.

The rest of the first floor has a large kitchen for meal prep, and an open backyard. Minor said The WARM Place is designed this way on purpose — people need to feel welcome. That’s been especially true heading into year three of a pandemic.

“I think connection is the key piece for a lot of people,” Minor said. “They need a community of people to support them, not judge them, and just be present.”

A rug with colorful squares is surrounded by black chairs, with walls covered by children's artwork.
Elena Rivera
/
KERA
Each room in The WARM Place has a memory wall, where children can bring pictures of their loved ones to display. "One of the things that we want to do is to create a safe environment for children to feel comfortable to share," said Program Director Dana Minor. "Sharing is really important and is honored in this space."

Peer support groups are led by volunteer facilitators, who take children through age-appropriate activities to process different emotions, like sadness or anger.

“What’s so great in a group setting is it really helps to validate some of the feelings that they have,” Minor said. “It helps them to realize they're not alone.”

The organization also has a licensed clinical therapist on staff who oversees the groups and is ready to step in if a kid is having a really hard time.

“Another thing that we often talk about is to meet people where they are,” Minor said. “If they're having a rough day, they're having a rough day, that it's not something that we need to fix. It's something to be present, and really feel honored and privileged to be able to bear witness to what they're going through.”

A room with black chairs on checkered carpet, with a white board and mural of jungle animals on the walls.
Elena Rivera
/
KERA
Program Director Dana Minor said the organization shifted to online and drive-through models of support during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the realities of loss and community support have remained the same. "There's been a lot of different things that we've learned that I think that our families have really appreciated," Minor said.

Processing grief is 'allowing yourself to be in the moment'

The WARM Place’s approach is in line with work grief counselors do one-on-one with their pediatric clients. Melodi Parker, a therapist in Desoto who specializes in grief counseling, said kids, just like adults, need space to process.

“Sometimes when people say, ‘Oh, kids are resilient, they'll just bounce back.’ Sometimes they don't easily bounce back,” Parker said. “They have the same questions: Why did this happen? Is it going to happen to me next? What is life going to look like now this person is gone?”

Parker said some signs of grief in children can manifest as anger and withdrawing, but also as emotional insecurity and clinginess. Changes in behavior, including wetting the bed, are also normal depending on the age range.

A wall of framed quilt squares, each individually made by a family or child to remember their loved ones.
Elena Rivera
/
KERA
A wall of quilt squares greets people walking into The WARM Place for the first time. "Each family created a square in memory of their loved ones," Minor said.

The pandemic has also been loss on a large scale for people, she said, whether that’s loss of a loved one or loss of routine.

“There are so many different layers to this, it is overwhelming,” Parker said. “[It’s important] to have conversations within your families, within your support circle. If you’re afraid, it is okay. Who would have ever thought in a million years that this would happen? I know I never thought this would happen.”

She said the most important thing is to be with the feelings, whatever they are, and try not to dismiss them.

“It's allowing yourself to be in the moment,” Parker said. “What can I do right now in this moment to get through this day so I can get to tomorrow, next week, next month, next year.”

Erica Geisel holds a picture of her family: two small kids and her husband, on the beach with the blue waves behind them.
Elena Rivera
/
KERA
"Even as a parent grieving, you don't have those resources available," said Erica Geisel, after her husband died suddenly in the fall of 2020. "You never can prepare for something like that."

A place where you can be yourself

For Erica Geisel, getting through this past year was possible because of The Warm Place. She and her kids found more ways to cope.

“I feel like that's where they feel like they can be themselves, because they don't have to hide anything, they don't have to pretend,” Geisel said. “The other kids around them and families know their story. And they're just wide open.”

Her daughter starting using art to express how she was feeling, drawing family portraits or images of herself.

“Before, honestly, they would tell me, ‘I don't want to talk about it mommy,’ or ‘Not right now,’ because they were feeling sad,” Geisel said. “After going to The WARM Place, she would tell me more all about it. [She’d say] ‘I was feeling sad. I missed daddy.’ And that sparked a conversation that we would have.”

A wall of photos of Erica Geisel's children and family, leading up the staircase to the second floor of her home.
Elena Rivera
/
KERA
"They have their good days and their bad days," said Erica Geisel of her kids. "The WARM Place will meet them where they're at, not where they think they should be. Or how they should be feeling by now."

And Geisel changed, too. At first, she’d sit silently as other people shared. Now, she’s open with her kids and herself about how she’s feeling.

“I’ve always been very independent, so it was very difficult and humbling to ask for help,” Geisel said. “But I learned to do that. And oh my goodness, it was a pivotal point. I didn't feel like I was drowning. I just felt a little bit above water, but that was enough air to keep me going and keep me afloat.”

She now has a community, and a group chat with other parents for advice. She’s grateful that The WARM Place is helping to teach her kids how to ask for help, too.

“You can't change what happened, unfortunately, but you can make a difference going forward,” Geisel said. “It normalizes how it's okay to seek help. You're not alone.”

And as new families come into The WARM Place, Geisel gets to throw them a lifeline like the one she found in 2020.

Got a tip? Email Elena Rivera at erivera@kera.org. You can follow Elena on Twitter @elenaiswriting.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.

Elena Rivera is the health reporter at KERA. Before moving to Dallas, Elena covered health in Southern Colorado for KRCC and Colorado Public Radio. Her stories covered pandemic mental health support, rural community health access issues and vaccine equity across the region.