After Donna Tollefson lost her only child, Crystal Evanson, who was 29, to a heroin overdose in March, she couldn’t focus only on her grief.
She had to make sure Evanson’s daughter — Natalie, 8, whom Tollefson is now raising — could mourn. But that wasn’t easy.
“I wasn’t prepared to explain it to her and help her deal with the pain,” said Tollefson, 59, of Mount Horeb. “You shouldn’t have to help your granddaughter grieve for her mother.”
At Agrace Hospice and Palliative Care, Tollefson and Natalie have met with grief support counselors, which has eased their distress.
On Monday, Agrace will open Agrace Grief Support Center, a few miles west of its headquarters in Fitchburg. It’s the first stand-alone grief center in the Madison area and one of just a few in the state, the closest of which is in Milwaukee.
The center will accommodate a growing demand for grief support, including from families whose loved ones, like Evanson, didn’t receive hospice care. Much of the new space is designed for children.
Agrace, like other hospice providers, has long offered grief support groups and individual grief sessions. But demand was outpacing space available, and some people didn’t want to go to Agrace’s main center in Fitchburg for grief support because their loved ones died there or generally because it can evoke death, said Cheri Milton, a grief specialist at Agrace.
“People often express a desire to meet with us somewhere else, in a location that’s not associated with the death,” Milton said.
The new, 5,400-square-foot center, at 2906 Marketplace Drive in Fitchburg, is leased from Supreme Structures, a construction company. Its president, Dan Bertler, is on an Agrace committee that oversees an endowment for people who need financial assistance for care.
The center will enable Agrace to expand its grief support groups to include groups specifically for people who lost a child and for those who lost a loved one to suicide, Milton said.
Grief support is free for families of loved ones served by Agrace or another hospice within the past year. For others, the fee is $10 per one-time group session, $20 for each family group session, $20 per one-on-one session or $50 for a six-week group series. The fee can be lowered or waived if people say they can’t afford it, Milton said.
A third of the space in the new center is dedicated to children, with an arts-and-crafts room, a dramatic play room, a sand table room, a “tornado room” for releasing energy and anger, and a mock hospital room.
In the hospital room, “children can go in and act out and talk through their experience with someone dying” in a hospital, Milton said.
During a session at the new center Friday with grief support counselor Jessie Shiveler, Natalie avoided the hospital room but explored the other rooms.
In the sand table room, among a variety of toys and miniature objects, she picked up one that seemed unfamiliar.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“A casket,” Shiveler replied.
The exchange didn’t lead to further discussion of that topic. But in the arts-and-crafts room, as they played with squishy worm toys, Shiveler asked Natalie about her recent trip to a water park for her birthday. Natalie, who will be in third grade this fall, said it was fun but also sad.
“Mom wasn’t there, and I found out who was in my class this year, and I was sad because two of my friends aren’t in it,” she said.
In the tornado room, which is equipped with a punching bag, Natalie jumped rope, bounced on an exercise ball and played an arcade-style basketball game.
“Did your mom do sports?” Shiveler asked.
“She did gymnastics, like me,” Natalie said.
At the same time, Tollefson met with Milton in an adult counseling room. Tollefson is also grieving the death of her brother, Larry, in April.
She talked about her daughter’s garden, saying Evanson canned tomatoes and made great salsa and pickles. Milton said Tollefson might consider doing similar activities with Natalie and Evanson’s other daughter, 5, who isn’t living with Tollefson.
“That’s a piece of keeping Crystal alive,” Milton said.
Tollefson said it’s hard for her to see her daughter’s clothes and belongings at her house. Milton said some people make blankets or quilts out of the clothes of loved ones who died.
“Maybe that would be a way for me to try to let go,” Tollefson said.
Milton said it could at least bring comfort.
“We don’t have a magic formula; we don’t have a secret pill,” Milton said. “It’s just time.”