(Photo above: Peacock Cottage | Photo by Karla Diaz Cano)
An inner resiliency is the hallmark of a petite blond with a heart-melting smile who spends every Sunday with inmates at Deerfield Correctional Institute. Darlene Gertsch is there, in the trenches, with men whom much of society has written off because she believes with all her heart that “as we heal individually, our family heals and our community heals. I see it in every group. We are all being called to heal the deep parts of our grief, the unhealed parts we don’t want to look at.”
The courage and humility of these men touched her deeply when a friend invited her to visit the prison four years ago. Since that time, over 100 inmates have gone through Darlene’s 16-week Good Grief Guidance course. “These inmates want to get out and be better men. They know their crimes and addictions have deep underpinnings of grief.” She adds, “as these men heal themselves, their wives, partners and kids are all blessed by who these men they become.” Darlene calls this work “the flutter of butterfly wings.”
Darlene knows grief first hand, which is what led her to found her non-profit Good Grief Guidance, Inc. The mother to five boys, Darlene experienced an idyllic early life, raising her sons into adulthood and watching them thrive. Then, eighteen years ago, Darlene’s precious son Michael got sick with cancer, and she left her work to nurse him through his illness. “And then he died in my arms, just like he said he would.” Nothing could have prepared her for what came next, what Darlene calls bad grief, during which she experienced despair, anger and depression.
She struggled and suffered for years with her loss until she came upon the Dougy Center for Grieving Children in Portland and was trained in the Dougy model. She learned how to befriend her grief. As she stopped resisting and pushing it away, she found that her grief dissipated. And although she could not bring Michael back, this process transformed her, opening her heart to the pain of others suffering loss of all kinds. From Darlene’s bad grief she realized she could help others through their journey, Good Grief Guidance was born. “I was called to serve grief. This is my ministry.”
Through her volunteering at The Sharing Place in Salt Lake City, working with grieving children and teens, then later in work with Hospice, Darlene saw terrible suffering. A teacher at heart, Darlene developed an intensive program to help heal those with shattered dreams and broken hearts.
For the past ten years since Good Grief Guidance was conceived, Darlene has worked with community groups, at-risk young men and individuals. The sweet spot of her work, however, is the four-month Good Grief program which supports children, teens and adults through a journey of transformation and empowerment. She runs several of these programs concurrently in the charming home that was donated to her cause.
Her aptly named nonprofit exists to help people transform their pain from all kinds of loss–whether it be the death of a loved one, a loss of health, financial turmoil, the shattering of an identity, the loss of innocence, a betrayal by a friend. “Everyone grieves because life has to do with love and loss. If you love deeply, you’re going to have loss. That’s what makes us human.”
The charming green bungalow on NW Louisiana is the perfect space for Darlene to expand her outreach, which was limited until now by lack of a physical location. She opened her doors on the First Friday in October with an art show featuring the work of those who have taken part in many forms of expression while on their healing journey. The participants’ paintings, drawings, writings, sculpture and other three-dimensional work are compelling and beautiful. That these pieces were created through an intimate healing process lends them a special poignancy.
“Good Grief Guidance is an experiential process, we don’t sit around and talk, we work deeply. Through writing, art and other creative expression, people tap into a deep unconscious that we don’t even realize that we have. In one class, we literally take something that’s broken and put it back together again,” says Darlene.
In its new home, called Peacock Cottage, Darlene’s Good Grief ministry is thriving. As the organization is a nonprofit, there are no fees for services, just donations. On Tuesday evenings from 6-9pm and Fridays from 11am-1pm, Darlene holds warm, welcoming drop-in sessions for those who may feel as she once did, alone, forsaken and unable to see the light. “We are in a revolution, I believe, to heal our grief. I see collective grief, collective healing. That’s what we do here.”