In the dining area of a dimly lit brewery, Meghan Frey roved the room, searching for a painting. Not just any painting, Frey was looking for one created just for her, that would remind her of her 17-month-old son, who died in 2018.
Within minutes, she came upon a vibrant, blond-haired boy staring back at her from an easel.
"I was shaking," Frey said of spotting her painting. "I couldn't believe how much he looked like Wes. The artist captured his spirit so much."
The painting was one of several on display at a private gallery event in Southwest Portland in October. Across the room, families locked eyes with paintings commissioned for them for the first time. Each artwork was an homage to a late child.
Frey is one of many parents who knows the grief of losing a young child. While healing and acceptance can take years, one organization aims to aid in that process, using art and storytelling for a project called Give Grief a Voice. The project was started by Buzzy's Bees, a Beaverton-based organization connecting parents with artistic renditions of the child they lost. Some are portraits, others are symbolic depictions. There is no cost to families who participate. This year marks the third year of the Give Grief a Voice project, which served 13 families this time around.
Participating families apply, and are then connected with a writer who captures the story of the child's life, before they connect with an artist who takes that story to canvas, creating paintings that reflect a sentiment, a moment, or an essence of a child or the child's impact on a family.
Families from across the country are chosen for the project, which uses storytelling and artwork as a tool for conversations around grief, loss and healing.
"I've heard it referred to as a rollercoaster, or a bowl in a box that gets bigger over time," Frey said of the healing process. "I'd get out of the car and think, 'Oh, I have to get Wes out.'" She's slowly moved past that instinct, but now, she worries, "have I forgotten about him altogether?"
For parents who attended this year's gallery event, it was the first time they were creating a new memory of their child, even in their absence. It's an experience grieving parents rarely get, and it's become one of the drivers behind Give Grief a Voice.
"The two biggest things I heard from parents was 'I just want to say my child's name, talk about them, and not why they died,' and 'have a new memory of my child,'" said Amanda Drews, founder of Buzzy's Bees. Giving parents the gift of art achieves that.
Drews created Buzzy's Bees in 2017 as a way to help others going through what she went through. Drews lost her own son, Hudson, when he was 13 months old in 2016. The organization's name is a nod to Hudson's nickname.
"It's my nature and I needed to not dwell in my own cave," Drews said of establishing a nonprofit. Prior to that, Drews worked as a marketing director before recently going back to school full-time to earn a social work degree from Pacific University, where she's currently enrolled.
For some, the gallery unveiling was a somber experience. Others found solace and comfort in their new artwork.
"We've been looking forward to this trip," said Lori Marsh, who made the trek from Ventura County, California, with her husband, Michael Marsh. The couple went home with a painting depicting three angels singing, "This Little Light of Mine."
"It took my breath away, it just brought me to tears," Lori Marsh said, gazing at the painting. "It gives me peace. This gives me peace. I know she's there. She's present."
Their baby died more than three years ago shortly after she was born three days premature with hypoxia — a lack of oxygen to the brain that led to major medical complications.
"The journey to even have a child was a long, arduous road," Michael Marsh said. "We're never going to move on, but we move forward."
To date, Buzzy's Bees has helped 32 families move forward, using art and storytelling, over the span of three years. The Give Grief a Voice project relied on three writers and six artists this year, along with another eight volunteers.
Jessica Johns of Beaverton was one of the six artists who participated.
"It's a journey for me as an artist to be part of this and be part of the story of a child who needs to be remembered," Johns said. "Receiving the story was emotional and beautiful."
"It's daunting, but so rewarding," said Portland-based artist Justin Jude Caroll, who produced the painting of Frey's son, Wes. "You're being invited into the story of their child and you want to do right by them."
Caroll said he plans to participate in the project again, if asked.
"It's just humbling, as an artist," Caroll said. "It's not about you, it's just something to make a family feel better."
To find out more about the project, visit BuzzysBees.org.
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