Colorado seminar helps Gold Star families cope with loss

Charity Stone remembers when she attended her first seminar for members of Gold Star families.

She didn’t make it through the whole weekend.

The memories of her fiance were too fresh, too overwhelming to share with a roomful of strangers. Six years later, the Denver resident is in a different place and she appreciates all the support she gets during seminars hosted by Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors — a national nonprofit that serves about 70,000 military families across the country.

TAPS recently concluded its third and final day of the Colorado Regional Survivor Seminar at Cheyenne Mountain Resort, an event that attracted about 150 adults and 70 kids who suffered the loss of a military loved one. They went through three days of grief counseling, social events and activities and games that allowed them to open up about themselves.

"It’s nice to have a community where you’re able to talk about it so openly and not feel so alone because there’s nowhere else you could really go," said Stone, whose husband, Army Col. Brandon Kirton, was killed in 2011 in Afghanistan by insurgents who attacked his unit. "They help you with different ways of coping. They make you realize everything you’re going through is totally normal. You’re not crazy. This is what happens when you’re in grief."

The event also focused on helping children cope with life without a close relative. For the first time, Stone brought her daughter Heaven — who was born shortly before her father’s death — to help her deal with her situation.

"She’s starting to realize and see now that she doesn’t have a dad," said Elisha Stone, Charity’s mother, who also attended the TAPS event. "They just did a thing in school, an activity where they had to tell a story about their family and their dad and she came home devastated and cried with her mom because she just feels different."

The children played all sorts of games that helped them learn to work and lean on each other in a time of need. An example of this was dodgeball, where the children were allowed to "un-freeze" their teammate before they got struck by a ball.

Kids no older than 18 were paired up with mentors from the Schriever and Peterson Air Force bases and Fort Carson. They participated in activities that focused on trust and teamwork. They painted and visited Cheyenne Mountain Zoo together and learned relaxation techniques.

In one game, the mentors and kids had to move a marble through a long series of connected short pipes and dump it into a bucket. And when the games and activities were done, the participants simply talked with each other.

"When you lose someone you love, it’s a lifetime of learning to live without that person and learning to live without that loss," said Kim Burditt, a TAPS seminars manager. "I spoke with a woman who is less than three months out since her loss. We have families’ members here who are 5, 6, 8, 10 years from their loss because life will continue, so learning to navigate through the challenges that life bring you is always changing, but the loss is always with you."