East Lyme family's suicide-prevention group finds a home
The Brian T. Dagle Memorial Foundation was always supposed to have a permanent home.
Three years after Brian — an East Lyme High School graduate — died by suicide at age 19, his parents, Ann and Paul, and his two brothers started the foundation and began hosting school forums, support groups and training for those grieving a loved one or hoping to prevent suicide.
Ann Dagle got a certification in grief and death studies, and training from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. She began hosting grief support groups at Old Lyme's youth services building, later expanding into rented office space.
Seeking solace of her own, she was driving twice a month to a bereavement and educational center in Kingston, Mass., where she met with other grieving parents in a house modeled to feel homey and calming.
"I just liked sitting in the living room," she said. "They just made us feel really comfortable."
For years, the Dagles were on the lookout for a place to serve as their headquarters where they could recreate that feeling.
They were close to a deal with town officials in Waterford to use space at that town's Youth Services building when, this summer, Ann Dagle drove by a house next to a Tarot card and palm reading business on Main Street in Niantic. The for-sale sign advertised that the building was zoned for mixed use. It had light yellow siding, a front porch and a yard. It was perfect.
"We're really lucky," Ann Dagle said. "It was really in the back of our minds that we would want a place like this."
In September, the Dagles bought the house. Its wooden floors are slightly warped; Ann Dagle thinks they give the place character. Light from windows on all sides of the ground floor fills the living room.
Dubbed Brian's Healing Hearts Center for Hope & Healing, it's the new official home of the foundation, a place that Ann Dagle said she hopes will house the group's offices and become a safe space for local people who know grief and want to feel less alone.
It's a long way from some of the dark basements with aluminum folding chairs where many local support groups have held their meetings, Ann Dagle said.
"It's a place where they can open up," she said of the new locale. "I wanted something that was just a safe place for people."
An interior designer friend who also lost a son to suicide found driftwood for the mantle, a small statue of Buddha, a crystal ball for the coffee table. She filled the living room with calming beige and pastel colors. People who come for the group meetings sit on a white couch with a comforting number of throw pillows.
The two women didn't have to talk about what the space should look like. They both knew what grieving people need.
"She gets it," Ann Dagle said. "I know everything she did is all with love. I think it's just understood."
She began hosting support groups in the house in November. The living room is almost silent — not even the sound of cars on Niantic's busy Main Street make it through the walls. On Friday, in a back office with a Persian rug on the floor, the foundation's part-time administrative assistant printed something out on an equally quiet printer. She and Ann Dagle had a quiet conversation about the bagels they planned to serve at an open house event planned for Saturday morning.
A photo of a statue of Brian hangs on one wall. There's a propane fireplace that will be up and running by Tuesday, Ann Dagle said. Above it, a piece of wood hangs on the wall adorned with a quote from Winnie the Pooh: "You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is even if we are apart, I'll always be with you."
Brian and his brothers used to watch the cartoon with their grandmother, Ann Dagle said.
"Who would have thought ... that we'd be using Winnie the Pooh to help us?" she said.
She plans to lease the second floor as therapy offices or for massage therapy. She recently started a support group for people whose spouses have died, and she hopes to expand the center's offerings to include knitting groups, book groups and any other resources that people may need.
"We just want it all under one roof," she said.
Dagle leads most of the groups and meets with people one-on-one, but she said she always relates to the people who come as a fellow griever.
"That's exactly what I wanted when I lost my son," she said. "We need that connection — it made me feel almost normal. Everyone got it, they didn't think you were crazy."
The Brian T. Dagle Memorial Foundation already is entwined in the fabric of southeastern Connecticut. The foundation has hosted countless training sessions, fundraisers and forums. Local school officials call Ann Dagle now to ask her to give suicide-prevention training to teachers. Therapists and hospice workers recommend their clients to her.
Last year, she found herself leading a training session at East Lyme High School. Standing in front of the group of staff at the school, she realized something.
"I remember thinking, 'Oh my god, I'm standing in front of Brian's teachers,'" she said. She finished the training and didn't mention the connection until one teacher approached her afterward, crying. "It was kind of surreal."
The Main Street house is just a physical manifestation of that connection with southeastern Connecticut, Dagle said. She said she hopes people will think of the house as the equivalent of the New London domestic violence shelter Safe Futures — but for people who are grieving.
"I want this to be part of the community," she said. "I want the community to use it."
The foundation has a mental health professional on its board, and the house on Main Street is filled with books and pamphlets for people struggling with depression or mental illness.
But Dagle said she still wants grief to be thought of as normal, something everyone comes to know and can get through with help from others.
"We can just sit beside them and hold space for them," she said. "It's not an illness, it's not depression. It's grief."