by Joe Bollig
OVERLAND PARK — “Everyone loved Leah,” said Pat Brown, her grandmother.
Leah Brown, 22, was one of three people who died in Lawrence when they were shot on Oct. 1, 2017.
She had gone to Lawrence, rather than Westport in Kansas City, Missouri, because the university town was considered safer. Brown and her friends were walking to their car when she was felled by a stray bullet.
There is nothing worse than the loss of a child or a grandchild, said Pat, a member of Queen of the Holy Rosary Parish in Overland Park.
“Because it’s your future,” said Pat. “Your child, your future, has been cut short. The joys and pleasures and even whatever sadness come with it — part of you has been taken away. It’s your flesh and blood, too.
“So that’s gone, and all the good things you looked forward to — the big events, the little events, being a grandmother by that child, not seeing her fulfill her dreams. That hurts.”
Ken and Patty Billinger, members of the Church of the Ascension in Overland Park, understand this loss very well.
Their only child Blaine Billinger, 29, experienced sudden cardiac death while riding his mountain bike on Sept. 17, 2011, just down the street from his parents’ home.
“People will say, ‘I know how you feel, I lost my mom a year ago,’” said Ken. “Well, losing a parent or a sibling and [losing] a child are two totally different things.”
“We’ve both lost our parents,” said Patty. “I’ve lost two siblings, and Ken lost a sibling. The level of grief is different.”
In their time of grief, the Billingers turned to their Catholic faith. Patty, in particular, began to look for a ministry that would comfort and heal them.
There was none.
Sure, there were plenty of bereavement groups out there, but there was nothing specifically Catholic that would accompany them on their pilgrimage of grief toward a place of hope. There was nothing that would nourish them with the Scriptures.
“I went to Ken, because he was studying to be part of the permanent diaconate and said, ‘I can’t find anything — it doesn’t exist,’” said Patty. “‘Maybe we need to go out and create something.’”
Ken and Patty checked with their pastor, Msgr. Tom Tank. They also contacted Deacon Tony Zimmerman and Brad and Libby DuPont of the archdiocesan marriage and family life office. They talked with other couples who had also lost children.
As Patty read through the Scriptures, she began to see glimpses of hope.
“So, I took it to Ken,” said Patty.
Gradually, through prayer, talking to people and reading the Scriptures, the Billingers began to form the idea of a ministry, which they called “Project Chrysalis.”
A chrysalis is the shell from which a butterfly emerges.
“What happens when this occurs to you, you pull yourself into the cocoon, and hopefully you emerge transformed into something beautiful — like a butterfly,” said Patty.
“There’s transformation both for the one you lost and your own self,” said Ken.
Project Chrysalis does its work through gatherings every six weeks. The first was on Oct. 22, 2018. For the time being, the gatherings are from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Ascension Parish in Overland Park.
The format is simple, and still evolving. The first few meetings began with prayer, introductions, Scripture readings and other materials, discussion, a closing prayer and socializing.
Generally, there is a topic for each meeting, selected by the Billingers. Both the Scriptures and Marian spirituality are foundational to the ministry.
“Sharing is optional,” said Ken. “Most people share, but they’re not required to. We don’t push that.”
“The beauty of it is how we’ve all come together,” said Patty. “We’ve become this little family in a short period of time. What’s beautiful about this club that nobody wants to be in is that we found out that, no matter [what the circumstances of the loss], we’re all going through that same thing.”
Project Chrysalis is open not just to mothers and fathers who have lost children, but also grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and other relatives. It’s open to parents who have lost children at any age, whether recently or in the past.
Jeff and Mary Howes, members of Sacred Heart Parish in Shawnee, have been to two meetings and brought other members of their family along with them. Their son Ryan, 25, died in a one-vehicle accident in Olathe on June 1, 2018.
They were initially hesitant because Ryan’s death occurred only five months before their first Project Chrysalis meeting, but they’re glad they went.
“It’s helpful to know there’s support out there, and you know the pain the other people in the room are experiencing,” said Mary. “And there have been many graces that have unfolded since [Ryan’s] passing through our church community, and an awareness of our faith.
“That’s what’s really getting us through.”
“Also, the constant support of our family, and not only our church community but our neighbors,” said Jeff. “That’s been an important part of how we’ve been able to deal with this particular grief, to move forward and not feel lost.”
For more information about Project Chrysalis and the next meeting, contact Ken or Patty by calling (913) 634-4210, or by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find more information on the website or on Facebook.