Diane and Larry Lees, of Madison Heights, with a portrait of their late son, Larry. The piano belonged to their son, who was an accomplished musician. Diane leads the Madison Heights affiliate for the nonprofit Helping Parents Heal, a group that has helped them navigate their grief.

Diane and Larry Lees, of Madison Heights, with a portrait of their late son, Larry. The piano belonged to their son, who was an accomplished musician. Diane leads the Madison Heights affiliate for the nonprofit Helping Parents Heal, a group that has helped them navigate their grief.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

Nonprofit helps parents process grief

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison-Park News | Published May 3, 2024


MADISON HEIGHTS — The saying goes that no parent should have to bury their own child. Diane Lees, of Madison Heights, has done it twice — first losing a baby born prematurely, and then an adult son.

Each loss was devastating, but Lees and her husband found a lifeline in Helping Parents Heal, a national nonprofit with local affiliates focused on grief counseling. The support group leans into spirituality but does not associate with any organized religion. People of all faiths, or lack thereof, are welcome without judgment.

“My husband and I went from having no knowledge of the afterlife and spirituality — not in any religious sense — to believing and trusting when presented with evidence that our children, and all of our loved ones, have transitioned to another plane of existence where we will meet again when it’s our time to cross over,” Lees said. “I no longer fear death, and I’ve received much comfort knowing my children are OK on the other side. The evidence is there if you choose to open your mind to it.”

In Michigan, there are only three locations that serve HPH members at in-person meetings. Lees is now the affiliate leader for the one in Madison Heights. The other two are in Coldwater and Ann Arbor. The Madison Heights group meets monthly and serves Oakland and Macomb counties. The national website, helpingparentsheal.org, anchors each group with an array of resources.

The parents in the Madison Heights group run the gamut in terms of how they lost children. One parent’s child died at 22, and another at age 5 — both taken by the same type of brain tumor. Others were lost to leukemia, brain aneurysms, cardiac disease, substance abuse and suicide. Some children died as recently as two months ago. Other parents have been processing their grief for nearly a decade.

For Lees, the loss goes back even further. Her daughter, Jenifer, was born prematurely in September 1974 and died shortly thereafter. The Lees then had a second child five years later; their son, Larry.

“He was our everything from day 1,” Lees said. “He brought us joy and laughter beyond our wildest dreams.”

Larry proved gifted academically, attending University Liggett School in Grosse Pointe Woods from eighth grade through graduation, and also excelled as a pianist, performing onstage at Oakland University with the Rochester Symphony Orchestra. He attended Ithaca College, focused on musical theater. Larry worked for Music Theatre International for two decades in New York, and on the side, he arranged and conducted music for The Summer Club, a big band that showcased music from the Frank Sinatra era of the Rat Pack. He also created original pieces and musicals performed at venues throughout New York and Philadelphia.

“He lived and breathed music,” Lees said.

But his life was cut short. In March 2022, Larry died from renal failure due to complications from alcohol use. He made such an impression on his fellow students that 25 years after their graduation, they came together in November 2022 to honor him with a concert at Liggett. Larry also has a permanent place of honor in the school’s art wing as of last year.   

Prior to joining HPH, Lees said her husband had been visited by their children in his dreams. The couple had been attending another grief group that proved the opposite of helpful, leaving them feeling emotionally drained and worse off than when they arrived. Lees herself was contemplating taking her own life to escape the pain. But then a mother suggested the HPH website. The talks there helped her finally make sense of things that had previously defied explanation.

“My husband and I were both experiencing odd occurrences,” Lees recalled. “The familiar smell of our son’s cologne. My husband was having vivid memorable dreams. Feathers and coins started showing up in the oddest places. We didn’t know what to make of any of it. I was raised Catholic and thought when you’re gone, you’re gone. But I no longer believe that.

“It’s every parent’s inconceivable nightmare to think you could ever lose your children. I grieved for my parents and sister, but the pain and hopelessness of losing our son is beyond what I ever could’ve imagined. It took my breath away. If you talk with any parent who has lost a child, they will tell you it’s the most painful experience of their life. The suicide rate for grieving parents increases within months of losing a child,” she said. “So if I can give one parent who is feeling the desperation of losing their child some hope and comfort in these darkest days of their soul, it will be enough.”

Mary Yamamoto is the affiliate leader for the HPH group in Ann Arbor. Her daughter, Kathryn, died at age 29 due to a heart issue. Yamamoto, her husband, their son and daughter-in-law recently returned from a trip to Ireland where they spread Kathryn’s ashes.

“She passed five years ago. And it was totally shattering — just a soul-crushing experience,” Yamamoto said. “I was raised Catholic, but not practicing. But I was always interested in spirituality, and I always believed in an afterlife. But it’s the moment when Kathryn passed away that I knew there was one. I knew there was no way that that was it. And as a parent, I really wanted to know where Kathryn was after she died. So that ignited a strong interest in understanding things.”

Yamamoto’s search led her to HPH.

“I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life really sad and in a difficult place, so it was important to find a way forward, even though we will always miss not having (Kathryn) here physically. I believe that our loved ones who are no longer with us physically want us to be happy. And making a difference in the world is one way to honor them,” she said.

Leading the Ann Arbor affiliate has been Yamamoto’s way to give back. She said the group is one of the newer affiliates and still relatively small.

“Some of the parents here, their loss is recent. I see them change in the course of a meeting. They can talk and share and laugh together and cry together. And by the end of the meeting, I see them walk out so much lighter,” Yamamoto said. “(HPH) won’t be for everyone, but I think there are people out there it can help.”

Lees said that people interested in learning more should first visit the national website, helpingparentsheal.org, to see if it feels right for them. If they then want to attend the in-person group in Madison Heights, they can email her for more information at hphmadisonheights@gmail.com, or call or text her directly at (248) 376-5035.