OAKWOOD, Ill. (WCIA) — Most parents don’t expect to outlive their child, seeing them accomplish all their hopes and dreams. When they do not have that opportunity, it can change a family forever.

An Oakwood woman and her husband lived through that unthinkable tragedy. Now, she is helping other families with similar stories through the grief process.

“It was every parent’s worst nightmare where your child has a cough, then two days later, they’re not here anymore,” recalls Carrie Hay.

She and her husband, Ben, took 17-month-old Luella to the emergency room on a Sunday in 2018. It was croup. Doctors told them she would be okay, but things took a turn for the worst by late Monday night.

“She was admitted to ICU. It still felt like…they felt like it was a good prognosis. We’re going to monitor. Do these neb treatments,” explains Carrie. “By Tuesday evening, they were going to put her on a ventilator and it kind of turned there.”

Luella suddenly passed away. For Carrie, it’s still hard to find the right words to describe the heartache.

“Your world completely blows up and everything you knew just goes through the window,” she says.

Carrie was left asking herself, “How do I continue on?”

The first step: packing up the car with Ben and their two kids for a 9-hour road trip to a retreat center in Wisconsin.

Carrie says they needed to surround themselves with people who could truly relate to the pain of losing a child.

“We immediately on the drive back from faith’s lodge…our wheels started turning, and we were thinking about [offering] this where we are for grieving parents,” says Carrie.

After a lot of planning, the idea came to life. Carrie and Ben opened Luella’s Lodge on ten peaceful acres of land in Oakwood.

They hosted virtual support groups throughout the pandemic and began welcoming families to the lodge for retreats in October 2022.

So far, Carrie and her team have hosted eight retreats with people coming from seven different states.

Breathwork and yoga are just some of the holistic therapies available for parents. Carrie says, it is a time to slow down and focus on your feelings.

“I found being out in nature was really comforting for me, and [it] almost expanded my view a little bit, and made me feel like there’s got to be more than what’s here now,” says Carrie.

That is something she learned in the early days of Luella’s passing.

Now, families who have suffered loss can walk the beautiful grounds, enjoy the private lake, go kayaking, and make art memorializing their child.

It is a way to unwind after heavy conversations with a death doula and other retreat goers during the overnight stays.

They also offer day activities in addition the the weekend retreats.

“We have some parents that have found the mission valuable enough where they’ve attended a retreat, and then they said I want to volunteer at a retreat,” says Carrie.

That was the case for Luella’s Lodge board member, MaryBess Gordon.

“My husband and I lost our first daughter, Maggie. She was stillborn at 36 weeks,” says MaryBess.

She had to find a silver lining to tragedy. Carrie found one, honoring Luella with each family she meets.

“[Carrie’s] love for her daughter and for her family is just absolutely fierce. She is absolutely fierce,” says MaryBess. “She is just a beautiful soul. She is kind, caring, and sympathetic.”

The two women agree that grief is not linear. It is a rollercoaster. The lodge’s goal is to make the ride a bit less bumpy.

“[It doesn’t matter] if they have…any type of breakthrough in their grief whether it’s been 2 months or whether it’s been 10 years,” says MaryBess.

Time does not always heal all wounds.

Carrie says, even still, there are days that can be unexpectedly hard for her and Ben.

“We kind of anticipate that to be forever. We’re anticipating being 80 years old and a memory pops up of Luella, and just [being] a mess for a few days, and that’s okay.”