Brenda Wiese was still new to Rice Memorial Hospital's Grief Center in Willmar when a high school-aged boy came in to talk to her about the recent death of a classmate.
Wiese hadn't dealt with many adolescent males and wasn't sure how the session would go. Would she say the right things? Would it be helpful?
Apparently she passed the test, because the youth told two of his friends about the visit. For the next several months they came to see her together to grieve and to swap stories about their friend.
In the 15 years since the Grief Center first opened, many tears have been shed for grief and loss. None of them, Wiese hopes, have been in vain.
"Grief is a very painful experience. It's very hard work to be grieving, but it's also a very necessary part of learning how to move on with life," she said.
The Grief Center will be in an unaccustomed spotlight next week when the Rice Health Foundation holds its annual holiday festival Nov. 13 and 14. The proceeds are designated for the Grief Center and its programs.
The Grief Center does much of its work from a quiet third-floor corner of Rice Hospital's hospice department. In this haven, surrounded by books and teddy bears, Wiese often meets with people as they work their way through the difficult terrain of grief and loss. On many days she's just as likely to be on the road, providing free grief counseling and community education in a rural region that extends from Willmar west to Ortonville, southwest to Granite Falls and east to Paynesville.
The need is enormous, said Wiese, who has coordinated the Grief Center for the past two years.
"We all grieve throughout our lifetime," she said. "When we don't allow ourselves to experience or to let people know how much that grief hurts, it just gets to be overwhelming.
Family and friends have the ulterior motive of trying to make you feel better. Sometimes you need someone who's there just for you and who will let you feel what you're feeling."
What is grief? Wiese describes it as "the way that we react physically, emotionally and cognitively to loss and change."
Most often, it's associated with the death of someone close -- a spouse, child, parent or sibling, or perhaps a friend, a teacher or co-worker, she said.
But it can be other types of loss as well, she said. "I see a lot of people with chronic health problems. I see a lot of people who have had a loss of home, loss of job, bankruptcy and the shame that brings to them."
More recently, she has seen a growing number of military families who need help with the losses that occur when a soldier is overseas, when he or she comes home, and with combat-related injuries and deaths.
As a society, Americans don't do well with grief and loss, Wiese said. "Society expects people to get over it."
Especially after the one-year anniversary of a loss, "we're supposed to pick up and move on," she said.
But grief doesn't work this way, and one of the roles of the Grief Center is to educate the public about the grieving process and how communities can support people who have sustained a loss, Wiese said.
"Grief isn't neat and tidy," she said. "It's kind of like being in the middle of a tornado. You're being pulled in every direction and experiencing all these things flying around and you don't know how to get out of it. I talk to people who say, 'I just don't know how to put one foot in front of the other.' We need to allow people to understand it's OK to have those bad days. It's OK to be struggling... I think we all have to learn to be a little more comfortable with tears and to give people who are grieving the opportunity to share those tears if they need to."
This kind of support is what Dr. Donald and Marlys Mattson of Willmar envisioned when they donated the core funds to launch the Grief Center back in 1995. The Mattsons, who were both involved in hospice for many years, had their own experience of grief when one of their sons drowned in 1971.
"I didn't know how to grieve myself. Nobody taught us," Dr. Donald Mattson recalled years later.
At the time the Grief Center was established, it was the only such resource in the region, and one of the few with a full-time presence in rural Minnesota. Camp G.K. Bear, a one-day grief camp for elementary-age children, was an innovation when it started in 1998.
Roger Bengtson, a funeral director with the Harvey Anderson and Johnson Funeral Homes, calls the Grief Center "an asset to the community."
Local organizations such as churches can't always meet the need -- and many people don't have any formal connection with a faith community that might support them after a loss, he said.
"The Grief Center is a resource for us to be able to tell people it is available," Bengtson said. "It is great for us to be able to say, 'You can call there at no cost.' Sometimes it's easier to share confidential things with a stranger than with someone you know. That's what grief counseling is all about."
The steering committee for the Rice Health Foundation holiday festival heard proposals from several hospital departments before selecting the Grief Center to receive the funds, said Deanna Savoie, chairman of the event. Organizers hope to raise $75,000.
"There's a lot of loss that people are dealing with right now," Savoie said. "I think it was something we all felt really strongly about. We just try to reach as many people as possible."
Wiese plans to use the money to increase the Grief Center's programs -- something that hasn't been possible with the current budget, which relies on donations and United Way allocations to keep the services free of charge.
With 200 to 500 clients a month in eight cities, in addition to doing training, debriefing, assessments and referrals, Wiese can't always meet with new clients as soon as needed. Extra staff time will improve the Grief Center's ability to keep up with the need, she said.
She also hopes to develop special programming for military families and grieving adolescents, two groups with significant unmet needs.
"There are organizations who help but there's still a need," Wiese said. "I hear from the school social workers that they're overwhelmed. They just don't have the time."