It was the death of their son that birthed in 2009 the Hudsonville-based Starlight Ministries, a Christ-centered peer-to-peer support nonprofit that meets people where they are in their pain without judgement. Starlight also has an outreach in the Muskegon area. Meetings are held at area churches in both locales.
Starlight initially started as a balm solely for grieving kids, but its focus soon expanded to other ages, said Bev Thiel, Starlight's executive director.
"It started for just kids but within a few short weeks the parents were all waiting in the other room supporting each other while the kids were in group so they added the adult group right away," said Thiel.
As a result, Starlight has developed into a ministry that serves people ages four years old through adult with age appropriate peer-to-peer support groups, meaning trained volunteer facilitators lead the groups without a psychiatrist or social worker present.
Starlight does not charge for its services. It is financially supported by individual donations, grants and foundations. Participants are not required to be Christian to receive help from this biblically-based ministry.
Starlight's programs are not one-size fits all, according to Gwen Kapcia, Starlight's director of program development and a certified thanatologist.
* Youth grief support groups. Age-appropriate peer-to-peer support groups for children ages 4-18.
* Adult grief support groups. Includes bereaved mom's retreat and bereaved couples' dinner.
* Cameron's Garden. For newly bereaved parents after the loss of a baby through miscarriage, stillbirth or newborn death.
* Camp Anew. Held in June at Grace Adventures near Silver Lake in Oceana County, Camp Anew is for kids ages 7-17 who interact with other grieving children. Campers learn biblically-based coping skills, and are offered hope to lead a meaningful life going forward.
Healing is the goal
"Our goal is to move people into healing," said Kapcia. "It's very sad that the person they loved died, and there's nothing we can do about that, but what's even more sad to me as a grief counselor is seeing people's lives die that day, too, and they never go on living normal lives.
"People who've had devastating losses can lead meaningful lives."
Reaching that point means making allowances for things that may need seem Christian at face value, said Kapcia. Among them is it's all right to be disappointed with God.
"Right now our unit is on lamenting and in the Bible there's a lot of laments," said Kapcia. "Last week we used the example of Jonah when he was in the belly of the whale: Look at his description of crying out to God, how he was in the bowels of the whale and God heard him. Our people feel they're in the bowels of the depth of pain and realizing that's not too far for God to hear them."
A ministry like Starlight requires it strike a certain balance, according to Kapcia.
"It's a real interesting balance to not make them feel they're at a Sunday school lesson or Vacation Bible School but getting that component so we have a grief lesson for the night or objective of what we want to accomplish that night but then we spend a lot of time pairing it with a biblical application," she said.
No prescribed timeline
While healing and a safe environment of caring is central to Starlight's mission, there's no cookie-cutter timeline that demands people need to "get over" their sorrow. Kapcia likens it to a wound that is on the mend.
"A cut is numb before it bleeds, it bleeds before it hurts, then it forms a scab and it's raw and it's painful before it heals, but you can always see where you've been deeply cut," said Kapcia. "It's the same thing for the bereaved. They're numb, but for some people, their numbness lasts a while longer and for some people, the scab stays fresh a while longer depending on the nature of the relationship and how the death occurred.
"There is no timeline and grief is not linear. Some people do not come to us until a year and a half (after a death).
"We want to be a path through their pain where they can see God working."