‘A Legacy Left Behind’ group looks to help girls dealing with grief stay on the right path

March 29, 2014

Five girls sitting in a circle at the Largo library Saturday morning started off their gathering with grim introductions.

“My name is Logan,” said the first. “I’m 12, and I lost my dad in a car accident.”

“I’m Frances,” another chimed in. “I’m 16. I’m a junior, and I lost my dad to a heart attack.”

“I’m Nikki,” came the next one, as she looked toward the floor. “I’m a freshman, and I lost my mom to leukemia.”

“I’m Tarjae,” said another. “I’m in eighth grade, and I lost my brother to a homicide.”

“I’m 16,” said the last one. “My mom died of cancer.”

They had come to share their grief, but this was no typical support group.

It was the brainchild of Leatrice Burphy, 33, of Greenbelt, who said she wanted a way to help girls through the same grief she had endured in her early 20s, when her father died of a long-term illness 17 months before her younger brother was fatally shot.

Unlike many grief support groups, Burphy said, hers wouldn’t wrap up after six weeks. Her nonprofit group, A Legacy Left Behind, is designed to be a years-long mentoring program to teach girls who have suffered the death of a parent or sibling basic life skills, from middle school to high school and on to college or the work world.

“I want them to know that a lot of times in our lives, bad things will happen beyond our control,” Burphy said. “But there’s always a way to overcome it in a positive way. . . . I personally believe there’s always a purpose for our pain.”

Burphy said the group is open to all girls in sixth through 12th grades but has attracted mostly African American girls from the District and Prince George’s County. She said she advertises events — they’re free — via schools and community groups, and she funds them herself or from community donations, including adult mentors and art and dance therapists who volunteer their time.

The small group that met Saturday shared common feelings — how they do not like being pitied, how they long for the family members they have lost — but mostly Burphy led them in discussions about life as a girl: how parents can sometimes be harder on daughters than sons, how sadness can lead to bad or good choices, how reality TV shows often portray women in a negative light.

“You’re all going to graduate from high school and go to college, right?” Burphy asked with a hopeful smile.

Burphy, who used to work in media relations, said she launched A Legacy Left Behind a couple of years ago. After mostly reaching girls through local schools, she said, she started the monthly “mix and mingle” events in January. She invites art and dance therapists to work with the girls.

“I don’t just want to sit in a circle and talk about loss, because that’s depressing,” Burphy told the girls. “I want to expose you to other ways of dealing with grief other than talking.”

On Saturday, Ashley Duquette, a registered dance therapist from Fredericksburg, Va., taught the girls how to use yoga and other dance moves to release anger and anxiety. She instructed the girls to open their arms and breathe in deeply as soft music played.

“Whatever tension you’re holding on to, imagine letting it go,” Duquette said soothingly. “A lot of grief we hold in our hearts, so we’re going to open up our hearts a little bit.”

Nikki Lynch, 15, of Lanham said the dancing helped relax her. Nikki’s mother died of leukemia three years ago.

“At first it’s kind of awkward because it’s a depressing subject,” Lynch said of the gatherings. “But then [the other girls] understand, and talking about it helps a little bit. The fun activities balance out the depressing part.”

Tarjae Harris, 13, of Southeast Washington attended her first event Saturday at the suggestion of a guidance counselor.

Tarjae said she’d had some therapy since her 17-year-old brother, Ernest Hart, was fatally stabbed during an argument in June.

But talking with other girls in the same situation was more helpful, she said.

“I don’t have other people who have gone through it,” she said.

Back in the group, the girls took turns completing the sentence, “If you were in my shoes . . .

. . . you would hate when people say, ‘Oh, that’s the girl whose mom died,’ because that’s not all you are,” Nikki said.

“If you were in my shoes,” added Frances Bettis, 16, of Upper Marlboro, “you’d know one parent can love you as much as two.”

“If you were in my shoes,” Tarjae said, “you’d know how it feels to be an only child.”

Burphy added her own take.

“If you were in my shoes,” she said, “you’d know there will be tough days but that you can make it through.”

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Katherine Shaver is a transportation and development reporter. She joined The Washington Post in 1997 and has covered crime, courts, education and local government but most prefers writing about how people get — or don’t get — around the Washington region.
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