Jonny Ahner loved building model trains, working on cars and watching movies with his Daddy. One recent day, the exuberant seven-year-old clutched a framed a photograph of a grinning man holding a tiny newborn.
"My Daddy's holding me in the picture," Jonny said. He tells a visitor about snuggling with his daddy to watch science fiction movies. The two tinkered with cars and motorcycles, and "We used to build trains," he said.
Jonny's Mom, Michele Fredericks, said the two were inseparable. "His Daddy was his whole world," she said.
But when his Daddy, former Marine Jan H. Ahner, died unexpectedly of pneumonia on March 17, 2008, Jonny's world crashed.
"He died," Jonny said. "I want my Daddy."
He needed more than Fredericks' patient answers to his questions of why his Daddy died and where he went. "As a seven-year-old, it's kind of hard to ask your friends about these things because they just don't understand," she said.
"He became lost," Fredericks said. "His Daddy was the center of his world. All he wanted to do was be with his Daddy. Whatever Daddy was doing was what Jonny wanted to be doing. And, all of a sudden, he was gone.".
When a year-and-a-half later Jonny was still struggling to cope with his loss, Fredericks turned to St. Luke's Health Network's Ryan's Tree for Grieving Children program.
The program, which provides a safe place for children from 5 to 18 to learn how to cope with grief, is offered free of charge. It uses guided peer support and activities designed to encourage children to give voice to their feelings of sadness, anger, bewilderment, loneliness and misplaced guilt.
"Ryan's Tree was begun in 2000 by a grieving mother and father," said the Rev. Anne G. Huey, Spiritual and Bereavement Care Manager for St. Luke's Hospice. "In response to losing a child, they became aware that there were no services for grieving children in the Lehigh Valley and they made a commitment to change that. Through their own financial commitment and grants from community partners, Ryan's Tree began as a means of addressing the bereavement needs of children who have experienced the deaths of parents, grandparents, siblings or friends."
Now, Ryan's Tree has branched out into Carbon County, beginning with a one-day "camp" held in October at St. Peter's Church in Mantzville, which Jonny attended.
"I loved everything," he shouted when asked which activity he liked best. He talked about a "getting acquainted" activity involving yarn.
The Rev. Robert Shrom, who is St. Luke's Hospice Children's Bereavement Coordinator, described the exercise.
Each child holds one end of a long piece of yarn. They share their names and a few things about themselves, then, still holding the yarn, they hand the end to another person.
"You end up with a web, and so we talk about when we came here, we didn't know the ways we're connected but we have these different kinds of connections," Shrom said. "It invariably turns out that there's a common connection."
Jonny had felt shy when he arrived at the program, Fredericks said, but the yarn web activity made him feel more comfortable. After that, he drew pictures, including one of a big yellow school bus and one of himself with his Daddy and one of his Daddy driving him to school, and talked about his Daddy and his loss.
Other Ryan's Tree activities involve writing feelings of anger or sadness on balloons, then popping them, and creating puppets who can safely "speak" for a child.
The program helped Jonny, who also participates in a grief support group at Franklin Elementary School, Fredericks said. Her and Ahner's younger child, 2 1/2-year-old Jenna, is too young to participate in Ryan's Tree.
Another one-day Ryan's Tree event is being planned for February or March. To enroll, contact Shrom at 484-241-8043. Eventually, Shrom hopes to expand the Carbon County program into six-week sessions by April, with children meeting in the evenings. Children are invited to participate in as many of the sessions as they find helpful, Shrom said.
Single-day events will continue to be held throughout the year.
Ryan's Tree activities "give children a life-skill they can use for other losses," Shrom said. They can attend as many or as few sessions as they like. It's up to the individual child to know when they've learned enough and vented their grief enough to stop attending the sessions. After stopping, they can return even years later, if they need to.
Ryan's Tree helped Fredericks, too. She now has someone to turn to for answers and guidance, or just to talk to when the grief is too heavy to bear.
In helping children verbalize and cope more effectively with each stage of grief, Ryan's Tree recognizes that "there is an ongoing relationship with the person who died. The life ended, but the relationship didn't," Shrom said. "They no longer have a relationship, a physical presence, but we try to see that they have a relationship with appropriate memories."
He encourages families to reach out through their grief to get children involved in Ryan's Tree.
"One of the things that people sometimes see as a barrier to participating in groups like this is they feel that there has to be something wrong with their child. People come to these groups not because there's something wrong but because there's something right. They recognize the value of getting support from outside of the family, because the family cannot always provide what is needed at just the right time," Shrom said.