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A child grieves with markers, pens, and crayons

A little more than a year ago, there were four people in the Reynolds family. Today, there are three—parents Angela and Ryan Reynolds—and their four-year-old son, Tanner.                                                                               

Last year, their infant daughter Ariana died at home. The Memorial Day vacation had just ended, and Angela and the kids were taking an afternoon nap. Baby Ariana was sleeping on top of her mom. When Angela woke up, from a brief nap, the baby was blue. Angela did CPR and called 911 which brought paramedics who aggressively tried to save the baby’s life.

The official cause of death is unknown.

Ryan Reynolds says Tanner, who was three-and-a-half at the time, witnessed everything, and had many questions.  Ryan says they always answered those questions openly and honestly.

Helping Tanner

The Reynolds reached out to programs in west Michigan that help grieving children, and the advice they heard from professionals at those places was that Tanner was too young and it’d be better not to talk to him about Ariana’s death. But that didn’t feel right to the Reynolds.

Angela says after Ariana (or “Ari”) died, Tanner had so many things he was thinking and feeling, but he didn’t have the words or the coping mechanisms. She says that trickled into his everyday life. “So where before she died, he might have said, ‘I really want that cracker and I’m mad I can’t have it!’ But after she died, he would just scream.”

Tanner has always loved making art, and he’s a pretty good little artist. But after Ari died, Angela noticed Tanner’s artwork shifted from colorful and skillful drawings to dark, scribbly pictures of rain clouds and people crying.

A Center for Grieving Kids

Inside the lobby of Ele’s Place you'll notice a big cozy couch and comfy chairs. Tucked in the corner are a few jumbo-sized teddy bears. Around the corner is a hallway that’s painted the colors of a lemon-meringue pie, and off the hallway are classrooms. But this place is not a school. It’s actually a center for grieving children and their families. (There’s an Ele’s Place in Lansing and another in Ann Arbor.)

The Reynolds family comes here every Wednesday. They drive 3-hours round trip, from Holland to Lansing.

Throughout this experience Tanner has continued to draw and make art. When he’s at Ele’s Place, you can almost always find Tanner inside the “quiet activity room,” where kids dealing with the death of a loved one can take part in all kinds of art activities.

A Child Finds His Voice, Through Art

After about a year of coming to Ele’s Place, Angela says she’s seen changes in Tanner’s artwork and in Tanner. He’s gone from drawing pictures of frowning, sad people to pictures of his family where everyone is together and everyone is smiling. In a recent picture, Tanner drew the four smiling family members (plus the family cat) with the title, “Ari’s picture, Ari loves her family.”

Non-verbal art activities can help kids organize their feelings. That’s what Sarah Rockstad says. She’s the program director at Ele’s Place.

“With grief there’s so much going on and it changes from moment to moment. But when you can do an art activity and you can see the result on paper it helps you make more sense out of those feelings, and you can then start to put those feelings into words,” says Rockstad.

Since coming to Ele’s Place, Tanner has made friends he can talk with about his sister’s death in a way he can’t with kids in the outside world. His parents have found a supportive, understanding group of other parents dealing with the death of a loved one. In fact, coming to Ele’s Place has been so important to the Reynolds they’re now trying to create a center like this in west Michigan.

Support for arts and cultural reporting on Michigan Radio comes in part from a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Kyle Norris is from Michigan and spent ten years as a host and reporter with Michigan Radio, the state’s largest NPR-affiliate. He lives in Seattle and works as a substitute host and producer at KNKX.
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