Lehman Riley has written nine children's books, and often visits schools to talk about them. But there's one he has not been able to reread, even to himself, since its publication last year.

"Losing Lizzy: A Story of Grief" is a book Riley wrote about the 2020 sudden death of his daughter, Tianna, nicknamed Lizzy.

"I can barely remember anything I wrote in there," said Riley, who is 60 and lives in Minneapolis. "I cried through the whole thing, and it hurt so bad to actually put these words down."

Painful as it was, he hopes the book can help others deal with their own grief.

"Grief will tear you up," Riley said. "Grief is no joke. I don't wish this on my worst enemy."

There's no one right way of grieving, experts will tell you. But some people find comfort in commemorative gestures: collecting donations for a nonprofit, putting up a tree or park bench.

Others are inspired by the loved one's memory to take on larger projects. Writing a book, founding a nonprofit, establishing a scholarship, developing a product or service, creating a work of art.

Such efforts help some people channel grief's overwhelming emotions into constructive activity — "to take a tragedy and turn it into a force for change and a force for good," said Kitty Westin, who worked to broaden understanding of eating disorders after her daughter died.

These projects help keep the loved one's memory alive. After a death, friends and family may avoid mentioning the person, assuming it's a painful reminder. But it's just the opposite, said Kelly Grosklags, a Twin Cities-based therapist who speaks and teaches about grief.

"Anybody that is experiencing deep bereavement will say that 'When you say the person's name, you are not reminding me that they died, because I haven't forgotten that,'" Grosklags said. "'It's reminding me that they lived.'"

Comfort in carving

For Rhoda and Dave Michaelynn of Golden Valley, creating decorative pieces from wood — bowls, spoons, salt and pepper shakers — is a way to feel connected to their son, Adam.

Adam suffered from anxiety and depression. At a therapeutic camp in Utah where participants were required to master wilderness skills, including carving their own wooden spoons, he was "the most content we had ever seen him," Rhoda said.

Back in Minnesota and struggling, Adam turned to drugs to self-medicate, she said. He died in 2016, at 18, after accidentally overdosing on opioids containing fentanyl.

In the aftermath, Rhoda found herself carving wood. She marked each piece with an arrow incorporating Adam's initials.

"I found it was really very therapeutic for me," she said. "I would sit outside and carve and feel close to Adam."

Dave began making wooden objects with a lathe, Rhoda made pottery on her home wheel and kiln, and in 2017 they began selling their products as Art of the Heart Gifts. All proceeds — around $35,000 so far — go to supporting adolescent mental health programs, especially Change the Outcome, a Chanhassen-based nonprofit that works to raise awareness of substance use disorder, started by a woman who lost her son.

"When you've lost the thing that's the most important in the world, there's a whole awakening," Rhoda said. "The smallest stuff is what becomes meaningful because nothing makes sense."

Perhaps the project's most important result has been opening conversations with other parents in similar situations.

"It's an eye-opening education every day — both how to get through it and what is the result of it," she said. "I didn't want it, but a lot of amazing gifts and insights and opportunities have happened because of it."

A lifelong journey

Pat and Judy Misener conceived of their service about 20 years after their daughter, 13-year-old Michelle, known as Mickey, died of cardiac arrest in 1988.

They had, at some point, offhandedly discussed the idea of a bed and breakfast for families that have lost a child. There weren't many programs for bereaved parents back then, said Pat, who is a pastor. When a friend showed them an ad for a bed and breakfast for sale, "it got us thinking, maybe we should do this," Misener said. "So we started looking at ideas and what would it cost and just decided, well, let's go for it."

In 2009, they opened Whitetail Lodge in Crosslake, Minn., and launched Smile Again Ministries, hosting families for three- to five-night stays that included breakfast, outdoor activities and conversations about the lost child. (Smile Again is temporarily closed because the Miseners have retired and moved to Lake City, Minn., but is scheduled to reopen in July under new management, Misener said.)

"We often tell families that grief is a lifelong journey," he said. "Grief is lost dreams, anniversaries that keep coming, milestones that are never met, graduations, maybe weddings, grandchildren."

Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' famous five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance — are accurate, Misener said. But the stages don't generally happen in tidy one-and-done steps.

"The mistake is thinking that when you get to acceptance, well, now you're done," he said. "The fact is, that isn't true at all. Five years from now you might hear a song that reminds you of your child and that reminds you of that death moment. Five years later, 10 years later, totally unexpected and out of the blue, I'm right back in the hospital with my daughter."

Keeping her memory alive

Jessica and Mary Ottman, the daughter-and-mother team behind Siena Soap Company's handcrafted skin care products, wanted to commemorate Leah Ottman, Jessica's sister, who died in 2020.

Leah, who went by LOTT, was a professional violinist, singer and songwriter. She had just joined their team when she died of an opioid overdose that included a deadly amount of fentanyl.

"I personally consider that she was poisoned because she did not know the fentanyl was there," said Jessica, of Blaine.

Jessica and Mary knew they wanted to create a soap in Leah's memory, but couldn't do it right away.

"The grief was so hard and heavy," Jessica said. "I think it was over a year before we even tried to figure out what it would look like."

Eventually they came out with the LOTT Bar, a soap in Leah's favorite colors, gold and black. A custom-made label features her handwriting. Proceeds from the sale of the soap go to a program that provides stringed instruments to Twin Cities children in need.

The soap and the program help keep Leah's memory alive, Jessica said.

"After the funeral, everyone else's life goes back to normal and yours never does and you're kind of stuck in this frozen time zone," Jessica said. "Once that first year is over, you don't feel that support as much, and you don't know if they're thinking of her, remembering her."

The soap, she said, "helps bring us together and have a way to still have her as part of our lives and part of our family."

Changing the system

When Kitty and Mark Westin were arranging their daughter's funeral in 2000, they were asked whether they wanted to request donations in lieu of flowers. Right away, Kitty said donations should go to the Anna Westin Foundation.

"I truly don't know where that came from," she said. At the time, no such foundation existed.

But Kitty soon organized one, and for two decades worked to change the system she blames for her daughter's death.

Anna suffered from anorexia and died by suicide at 21. At the time, Kitty said, no residential beds were available for mental health patients, and eating disorders were widely misunderstood.

"It's not rich white girls wanting to be skinny," Kitty Westin said. "It's a serious mental illness that people die from. Every 52 minutes someone in the United States dies from an eating disorder."

Kitty, a former psychologist, became a tireless activist for mental health parity — insurance companies treating mental illnesses as they do physical ones — and recognition of eating disorders as serious mental illnesses.

Kitty was often tempted to quit. "I didn't want to live and breathe eating disorders." But she would remind herself that she was serving as a voice for Anna and think, "OK, I can keep doing this, it's still really important."

She helped found the national Eating Disorders Coalition and the Anna Westin House, a residential treatment center for eating disorders. The Anna Westin Act passed in 2016, increasing education about eating disorders and requiring insurance companies to cover their residential treatment.

After that, Kitty gave herself permission to step back and focus on her daughter's other qualities.

"It was a hard thing for my family to have her kind of identified as the poster child of eating disorders," Westin said. "Now we have her back."

'Like a washing machine'

Although he's published a series of children's books, Lehman Riley didn't think he'd ever write about his daughter Lizzy's death.

"When grief first hits you, it's like being in a washing machine on high speed," he said.

Lizzy died in 2020 at age 23 from a drug overdose that Riley believes was inflicted by someone else. She had a new job, new car, plans for the future.

A school administrator friend repeatedly urged him to write a book, saying it could help kids struggling with their own losses.

Riley prayed for strength. He struggled to get past the first paragraph, forgot how to spell simple words. Then another of his daughters, Nikki, agreed to write something about Lizzy's death.

"She wrote out some beautiful stuff, and it triggered me to start writing again."

The 36-page book is told from Nikki's point of view, blended with Riley's. In the book, Nikki dreams that Lizzy appears at a family picnic wearing a long white sweater. "I'm always going to be here with you guys," she says. In real life, Riley dreamed that.

A therapist in the book sounds as if he's assuring Riley of an eventual acceptance that, in real life, he hasn't fully achieved.

"At times," he said. "But then there's a little bit of bargaining again. It's a continuous thing; you can just manage it easier, you know?"

Riley has received emails from strangers thanking him for the book, and he's glad it's helping somebody.

"When that grim reaper rings your phone and you answer it and they tell you your loved one is gone, there's no comeback to that," Riley said. "Are you going to just check out? Or are you going to do something for somebody?"