Kelly Grosklags likes to say she’s been in the grief field since she was 11.
In that year, on an ordinary night, her life was upended when she and her 33-year-old mother stopped for a bite to eat in a Richfield grocery store. Her mother had a heart attack right there, then lay in a coma for three months before dying.
With her parents divorced and her father not in the picture, she went to live with extended family members, and attempted to stuff the pain engulfing her. It didn’t work.
Now Grosklags, a former hospice social worker with a private psychotherapy practice in cancer and grief, has embarked on a bold mission to minimize the suffering of others by offering them what she once needed: an outlet.
Four times a year, in a program she calls “Conversations With Kelly,” Grosklags shares the stage with cancer patients, trauma survivors and medical professionals. The audience also is made up of her patients, some in remission, some only days away from dying, as well as others who have been referred by their doctors.
No topic is off limits: intimacy during chemotherapy; healing from trauma; forgiveness. Her next program, scheduled for Feb. 23 at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, focuses on hope.
“I want people to have difficult conversations,” said Grosklags, 47, of Prior Lake. “I want to make grief meaningful. I can reassure people that they will get through this, because I have.
“You can’t cure grief,” she added. “You heal through grief.”
People linger after the programs, waiting for a personal moment with Grosklags, which she always offers.
“Every single time, someone has collapsed in my arms. That’s my affirmation,” she said.
While tears are shed, there’s also plenty of laughter. “This,” she said, “is about living.”
Her uplifting tone is in stark contrast to her devastating childhood memory of a dying mother, of shouting voices and an unnerved store manager asking Grosklags if she would like ice cream.
“I just want my mommy,” she remembers saying.
She returned to fifth grade determined that no one know her story. “You should be crying,” well-intentioned family members told her.
In college, she had a panic attack. A therapist asked whether she had any unaddressed trauma. The question provided clarity.
“Now I know what grief is,” Grosklags said. “I realized, ‘This is going to be my life’s work.’ ”
Barbara Fleetham, a retired registered nurse, remembers meeting Grosklags nearly 25 years ago, when they worked together in hospice care for Fairview Hospital.
“I met her when she was 23 and hired to be our hospice social worker right out of the cradle,” Fleetham said. “This girl had a pleasing personality, but how would she ever be able to bring to the dying wisdom and sensitivity? It’s such a difficult thing to walk people to their death.”
She quickly learned that Grosklags “had such an old soul,” said Fleetham, now one of three people on the creative team who develop content for upcoming “Conversations With Kelly.”
“She can deliver hard news with such compassion and love. Doctors don’t necessarily have the skills. There comes a point when you have to say, ‘Nothing’s working.’ Many doctors say to their patients, ‘You need to talk to Kelly about this.’ ”
It was Fleetham who first envisioned a public speaking role for Grosklags.
“With my background in hospice, I know that this is a very underserved community,” Fleetham said. “People don’t want to take this on. I saw Kelly getting weary. That’s when I said to her, ‘I see you going onto a stage.’ ”
They held their first “Conversations With Kelly” at Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis, with more than 100 people in attendance. As word got out through doctors, support groups and social media, the venue was shifted to Macalester College in St. Paul, then to St. Thomas, to accommodate growing numbers.
Participants range in age from 18 to 80. Most are in their 40s, 50s and 60s. Each attendee is offered something tangible to take home, such as a rock Grosklags has collected from the North Shore.
“I tell them, ‘Take away the energy from this night.’ ”
Every morning, Grosklags uses incense to clear the air in her soothing private practice space in the Uptown area of Minneapolis. The room is filled with candles, inspirational art (“Center yourself,” “Let your spirit soar”) and meaningful keepsakes. A little angel that lights up, a nest filled with spiritual amulets, a glass tear.
She tells a story. A woman in her 20s was dying. “I want to live longer,” she told Grosklags. “I haven’t even met my partner. My body’s ready, but I’m not.”
Grosklags, married and the mother of two young adults, gave her a rock to hold that said “longevity.”
“But I’m not going to get that,” the young woman said as she cried.
“Sometimes, our longevity comes through our legacy, the way people remember us,” Grosklags said. “She still grieved after that, but she put her energy into writing letters to her friends, her sisters. She did beautiful work.”
Grosklags, who has reconnected with her father, has seen others do beautiful work until their last breath, sometimes in the form of forgiveness or family reconciliation.
She’ll speak in Philadelphia in April, then it’s Fergus Falls, Minn., in May. “The conversation is going on the road,” she said with a laugh. “Isn’t that great?”
She is amused to hear that there are “Conversations With Kelly” “groupies” who meet for dinner before the events, “while I’m backstage pacing and sweating.”
Grosklags once looked back at her childhood and asked, “Why did this happen?” She no longer asks.
“Now, as I’m sitting here,” Grosklags said, “I know why.”