She was 17 years old and weeks away from her senior year at Auburn Riverside High School when Michelle Sams learned her father had died.
A truck driver, Wayne Sams was killed Aug. 13, 1999, in a pileup on Interstate 405.
For Michelle, the oldest of his three children, it seemed there was no one she could turn to.
“I’d never known anyone who’d lost a parent, and I felt totally alone,” she said. “It was devastating.”
Someone told the Sams family about an organization that specializes in helping grieving children — Bridges, offered by Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital & Health Center in Tacoma.
“We do family support for children age 4 to 18 with someone who has died in the family,” said Heather Neal, a Bridges supervisor. “We don’t use therapists; we train and use facilitators and put children of the same age in groups that meet once or twice a month.”
Michelle Sams wanted nothing to do with the program at first.
“I remember the first time we went, they took a family picture, added it to a bulletin board of family pictures,” she said. “I didn’t want to smile. I was mad I had to be there. I didn’t want to be a grieving kid.”
Once she’d been added to a group of six or eight kids her age in similar situations, she found solace.
“It’s so powerful, realizing you’re not alone. That’s what Bridges is so good at, making you feel less alone in the world,” she said. “We had group activities, group discussions, and learned from one another.
“I remember admiring our facilitator. She’d gone through a loss, too, but gave us so much time. I stayed through my entire senior year. It helped me a ton.”
Fourteen years later, Michelle Sams has become Michelle Allen, wife of cook Dave Allen and mother of three. She home-schools in Tacoma, and in the hallway of her home is a picture she passes each day.
“Eleven days before my father died, we randomly had a family portrait taken,” she said.
The grief has changed in the 14 years since Wayne Sams died, but Michelle still feels it. Her father wasn’t there when she was married or had her first child.
Now 31, she has found time to train and volunteer as a facilitator for Bridges.
“We start each meeting with a potluck dinner that gives me the chance to talk to parents,” she said. “I’m with the 8-to-11 year olds. The more similar the loss is to mine, the more it hits home.
“Two kids lost a parent in an accident like mine. It makes me sad but glad I can be there for them. I can tell them, ‘I’ve been there. I came out the other end.’ That helps when you think you’ll never recover.”
Wednesday marks the 25th anniversary of Bridges’ opening, and over the years the program has worked with more than 4,000 children.
“We do ask families to call, to approach us — we don’t look for them,” Neal said. “We get referrals from schools, where children are apt to show physical symptoms, like stomach aches. We get them from first responders, from physicians.”
Bridges asks for voluntary payment of between $5 and $75 a month, depending on the family situation. Many don’t pay at all — and that’s OK, Neal said.
Michelle Sams Allen volunteers because she felt an obligation.
“For so many children — including me — that first loss of someone so close is devastating,” she said. “Yes, kids are resilient, but it breaks my heart to see 4-year-olds dealing with this.
“Kids tend to re-process their grief with each developmental stage they reach. New questions come up, new issues. I had trouble dealing with the grief even two years ago — 12 years after my father died.
“It taught me there can be a comfort in knowing you don’t have to be done grieving. You don’t focus on it, try not to have it change your life, but part of that grief remains.”
25th anniversary open house
What: Bridges, A Center for Grieving Children.
When: 4-7 p.m. Wednesday. The public is welcome.
Where: Christ Episcopal Church, 310 N. K St., Tacoma.
To contact Bridges: Call 253-272-8266.
Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638