by Morganne Mallon
Ashley Pipe, dressed in a gray pantsuit, raced to Houserville Elementary School straight from her job at the Centre Foundation.
Once inside, the 29-year-old Penn State graduate sat down at a large conference table with about 15 or so other men and women. They passed around boxes of chocolate chip cookies and banana bread while flipping through packets listing who would be attending that night’s Tides meeting, their age and how their relative died.
The volunteers for Tides, a State College nonprofit dedicated to offering grief counseling to families experiencing loss, range from college students to middle-aged parents. Each meeting, the volunteers serve the families dinner and then break into groups where the volunteers facilitate discussions about coping with grief.
Pipe has more in common with the members of her group — adult loss — than they may realize. Her father died suddenly from alcoholism when she was 16.
“Sometimes people say it’s a really shitty club you’re joining,” she said. “That’s what I’ve really taken comfort in. Yeah, it’s a shitty club, but I’m there to make the welcome maybe a little less jarring.”
- Ashley Pipe sits outside Houserville Elementary School in State College on April 28, 2016. She facilitates her group discussion during her biweekly Tides meeting.
Almost 15 years later, Pipe vividly remembers every detail of the night she found out her dad died.
Pipe woke to the phone ringing at 4 a.m. She had been in bed sleeping, but crept down the hallway to listen to her mother’s conversation with an unknown caller. As she peered into the bedroom, she saw her mother sitting on the bed, facing away from the door, the phone pressed to her ear. When her mother finally hung up, she turned around, her face ghostly white, to face her daughter.
“I remember my heart racing and being like, ‘Oh my god, something’s terrible,’” Pipe said. “So she turned around and said, ‘Daddy’s dead.’ I dropped to the floor. My legs gave out and I just started sobbing, wailing, like you see in the movies.”
By this time, her two younger sisters had woken up, Pipe said. The girls and their mother cried until they were numb.
Once the numbness kicked in, the women immediately began making funeral arrangements. By 6 a.m., the obituary had been written, and Pipe and her mother had begun paperwork related to her father’s estate.
“It was my mom, my middle sister and me sitting at my dining room table, and that’s the point where I said, ‘Who is going to walk me down the aisle?’” Pipe said. “That set us off bawling crying again.”
In the days following, during which the family held a wake, Pipe said it felt as though they were just going through the motions to get through each moment.
“It was those moments of just insane, consuming grief,” Pipe said. “And the moments of numb where you manage to hold it together and not feel anything.”
There are certain moments Pipe remembers vividly, such as the 20 platters of food delivered to the house that no one was hungry to eat, and her youngest sister, who was four years old, not fully understanding what happened and matter-of-factly telling every visitor, “My daddy died.”
Pipe’s father wanted to be cremated, but she and her family were unsure of what to do with the ashes. His remains sat in the funeral home for one year before they decided to buy him a cemetery vault to hold the urn.
They filled the vault with items they thought he would enjoy, including Cheese Jax, his favorite snack food, and little green toy army men. Pipe’s father had served in the army, and while he and her mom were dating, Pipe’s mom would carry one of the toys with her while he was stationed away from her.
“People say time slows down, you’re going through a fight or flight reaction,” Pipe said of the immediate aftermath of her father’s death. “You can almost wade through it. Things would either super accelerate, or go so slow that I could really feel everything just passing by.”
- Pipe serves Caesar salad to a family member attending Tides.
Tides, which began in 2003, is now headed by Executive Director Suzanne Thompson, who said the organization is dedicated to changing the conversation about grief and telling people experiencing loss they aren’t alone.
Program director Holly Torbic said after the death of a loved one, people need to give themselves permission to mourn, but also have a safe place to do it. She said most of the families who attend Tides don’t have that safe place, maybe because the people who are a part of their everyday life simply don’t know how to support them.
“Grief is the internal response to loss, the anger, the guilt, the abandonment, the relief,” Torbic said. “Mourning is the outward expression of what we do with it. Everyone grieves, not everyone mourns. But what we’ve learned is mourning is essential to continue living fully.”
Pipe first heard about Tides when she auditioned for Happy Valley’s Got Talent, an annual talent show held in the State Theatre that serves as one of Tides’ biggest fundraisers.
While her rendition of Adele’s “Make You Feel My Love” didn’t get her to the competition’s finals, her reason for auditioning — to help support an organization that provides what she desperately needed after the death of her father — did catch the eyes of Torbic.
“She was singing in honor of her dad,” Torbic remembered. “When she shared that and then sang her song, there wasn’t a dry eye. She sang from the heart and it was absolutely beautiful. And for our Tides volunteers, it’s their hearts that set them apart.”
Immediately after Pipe’s audition, Torbic ran to Pipe to offer a hug and a proposition to volunteer as one of Tides’ group facilitators.
The next fall, Pipe found herself attending an intensive four-day, 12-hour orientation to train volunteers on how to counsel someone through grief.
Pipe remembers the moment the gravity of what she was signing up for hit her. As she sat with the other volunteers and listened to the orientation leader talk about parental loss, she started to relate what they were learning to her own experience.
“I’ve never met a girl who has lost a father, who doesn’t within 24 hours ask, ‘Who is going to walk me down the aisle?’” Pipe recalls the speaker telling them.
Pipe promptly burst into tears, remembering that she had asked that herself only a couple hours after her father’s death.
After the Tides volunteers finished going over plans for that night’s meeting, they headed to the school gymnasium, where families had started to gather. Many had seated themselves at the long cafeteria tables. Some of the younger kids in attendance played board games and Jenga in the corner.
Once inside, Pipe put on a pair of plastic gloves and joined the other volunteers in serving Rotelli’s pizza and Caesar salad.
Dinner is one of Pipe’s favorite parts of the night. She said she enjoys the homey feel of sharing a meal together, the ability to interact with everyone and the reprieve from the seriousness and weight that comes later in the night, when the families break into groups to discuss their mourning process.
Normally while she serves, she and her co-leader plan what they would like to discuss with their group. However, it’s hard for them to fully prepare for how a meeting will go, as it depends on the mood of the attendees.
When her own dad died, Pipe said she felt numb. She said she didn’t mourn for almost a year. Then before her senior year, an injury prevented her from continuing in competitive swimming, a sport she had participated in her entire life.
With a sudden increase in free time, Pipe said she started to push boundaries — dating around, experimenting with marijuana — just as any regular teenager would. But her behavior escalated, a common experience for women who lose their fathers at an early age.
“I think it was an especially volatile time,” Pipe said. “Teens are trying to figure out who they are anyway. It was pretty hard for me.”
Pipe has difficulty remember this time period. She said she has very vague memories for about two years after the loss of her father. She remembers activities she participated in and major events, but she cannot recall any specific details from that time period.
>She also found herself unable to sleep for more than an hour at a time, Pipe said. Whenever she would wake up, she would feel anxious.
Pipe said she believes her inability to sleep was caused by the way she found out her dad died. She said she thought every time she would wake up, something terrible would have happened.
- Pipe speaks with members of her group. She generally lets the group members dictate how the meeting goes, whether they want to share how they’re handling their grief or simply discuss how their day went.
Once dinner was served and everyone had their fill, it was time to break into groups. Torbic made some announcements, and then the families met with their counselors. Because it was warm out, many of the groups moved to the benches outside. Pipe followed, settling her group at two benches in a small garden. They sat toward the front of the school, far away from the playground, sports fields and other distractions.
Pipe now facilitates the group for adults who have lost parents. Tides allows attendees to come and go as they are comfortable, so Pipe said the number of group members can range from one to eight in any given week. She said she doesn’t really get “regulars.”
People come a couple times, miss a few, then resurface again for a few more sessions.
Some days are like pulling teeth, Pipe said, while others are full of conversation until it’s time to leave. Sometimes there isn’t even discussion, and the group takes the time to play Uno.
Group facilitators are trained to avoid sharing their own stories. However, Pipe said she and her other facilitators discovered their group opens up more when the two offer up their own experiences to show they are on the same playing field.
- Pipe fiddles with her wedding ring while listening to her group members talk.
A lot of the times, they talk about the expected days that will be hard — holidays, birthdays, anniversaries. Pipe said one can try to brace themselves for the wave of emotions on these days.
And then there are times when the grief washes over unexpectedly, such as Pipe’s wedding day. She said the day itself wasn’t terrible. She walked down the aisle wearing a bracelet with a charm with her dad’s picture, which she said comforted her.
She said what was hard was the lead-up to the big day, when she kept thinking of how her dad wasn’t going to be there.Pipe and her husband, Michael, have recently begun trying to have a baby — another stage in her life that she has to accept her father will not be there for.
“You almost have to redial with your grief,” Pipe said. “I think unexpected things that come up aren’t harder, they’re just unexpected and you have to be kind and gentle with yourself.”
- Pipe sits with her co-group facilitator and one of her group members.
One family had lost their father, who was in the military like Pipe’s dad. About 45 minutes into the night, Pipe noticed one of the pictures they had brought — their little boy with his dad in uniform.
- Pipe holds hands with another Tides member during the meeting’s ending circle.
After an hour discussion, the groups are ready to return to the gymnasium. The families reunited and chatted with one another as the volunteers began to clean up for dinner.
“Alright, let’s do this, circle up!” one of the volunteers yelled.
At the end of every Tides meeting, all of the families and volunteers stand in a large circle around the gym, holding hands. One member of the circle begins by making an announcement — some say what they’re thankful for, some mention something positive going on in their lives, some of the younger kids simply make enthusiastic statements, such as “I like cupcakes.”
The speaker squeezes the hand of the person to their left, who in turn either makes their own statement or squeezes the next hand, until everyone in the circle has felt a squeeze.
Most members of the circle kept quiet. When it came to Pipe, she told everyone how happy she was to return to Tides after missing the past couple meetings.
After the circle ran its course, any mess was picked up and all of the families piled into their cars to head home, the volunteers reunited again. They returned to the conference table where they began their night, and each volunteer reflects on how their individual group went.
“The biggest part for me about Tides itself and Tides night is that it’s really special and kind of hollowed ground to be with families and to share their burden,” Pipe said. “A big part of my own healing is that out of my own experience, there is someone there to be with them.”