S2, Ep. 2 - Connection Between Design and Grief

March 20, 2024

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Before we delve into today's episode, we want to provide a content warning. Our conversation today will touch on the sensitive topic of grief and child loss. If you feel this may be difficult for you, we encourage you to listen with care or skip this episode.

[Intro music]

00:26 SYDNEY: Welcome to Responsible Disruption. Today, we're exploring the intersection between grief and design. Our guest, Riley Ohler, has a profound story that intertwines love, connection, community and design with his journey through grief. Riley is my colleague at J5 Design and we're honored to be able to share his story on the podcast today. Thanks for joining me, Riley.


Hey, thanks for having me.

46 SYDNEY: So diving right into it, owing to your life experiences, you have a really unique perspective on design and how you approach the work that we do. It seems to me that we should start at the very beginning of your story and I'd like to ask you about your son Colin. Can you tell me about him?

01:02 RILEY: Thank you. Thank you for asking and thank you for mentioning his name. I think that's one of the things through grief and loss and the loss of a child. That's super important is that diving right into and mentioning their name is something that people worry about doing and by saying their name helps keep their memory alive. Keep them, with us. So I appreciate that. Yeah, so Colin was a rambunctious, probably not the right word. He was a kid who loved life wholeheartedly. He was always busy trying new things. He loved books, which is a random thing for a child who's a year and a half to dive into. He would sit in a little book container we had an look at his favorite books. Obviously he wasn't reading it a year and a half. He was... dad biased that he was a genius but, yeah, just a wonderful kid.

02:06 SYDNEY: I'm sure you're right.

02:15 RILEY: And every person he met, he touched in a way that they remembered him fully and as a kid with charming blue eyes and an awesome smile. He certainly knew how to do that and to get to the story, while Colin was, I dropped Colin off at my in laws for the day, I was off to work and my wife was off to work, and that morning was like any other morning. You know, you get up, you go. And we had our breakfast. We had strawberries and we got off to their house and of course we forgot some things and just the usual everyday things that happen in life that all of a sudden become little moments that are really, really important. And as I'm handing him off to my mother-in-law and I look in his eyes and that that the sun is shining through this light that they have in the OR this window that they had in their house. And it his eyes just light up. And I said, man, I love you. Blue eyes. And those were the last words that I that I spoke to him. And few hours later we got the call that Colin had fallen into the lake and was at the Calgary South Health campus and we had to be there quick. And we were lucky. We were there to be there for some of his last moments and to be surrounded by the amazing team at the South Health Campus and the nurses and doctors who do just a phenomenal job every day and starting our grief journey there with the support that we had was kind of key in our process and understanding because. When Colin passed, we were in the ICU and they said, well, we'd like to move Colin somewhere because it's not really a nice place to do this grief and grief work here and or anything. They didn't call it grief work at the time it was just not a good place for you to be. And so they found a room down the way that was a training room at the time. And so I pick Colin up and carried him down the hallway in this beautiful moment with my wife by my side. Carried him down the hallway to this this training room.

And as we're sitting there, it's still a sterile environment. It's still a training room. It's not a grief room or anything. And as we're sitting there, you can hear the buzz of the fluorescent lights and just that feeling of being somewhere so sterile while experiencing such a profound moment in your life and our family started coming in and we turned that place from a place of that sterility to a place of love and care and tears and sadness and happiness and all of it in one. Yeah. And so we spent a lot of time there and started that grief process from that moment.

05:54 SYDNEY: I want to thank you for sharing that story and for always sharing that story because I know it's something that you do a lot and I know how helpful it is for other people. So thank you for that. I'm interested a lot in what happened next. One of the one of the things I know because I know you is that you didn't have a typical funeral for Colin. You created a different experience. And can you tell me about what happened next in the story?

06:26 RILEY: Yes, the natural designer in my being. I guess that kind of made things happen. My wife and I were sitting in bed the night Colin passed and obviously not really sleeping and wife looks up. How do you plan a funeral for your child? And it was just horrible. Like, how do you do that? And it was at that moment we decided as a couple that we're not going to do this journey without it being authentic when it comes to everything around Colin, we are going to be as authentic as we possibly can be authentic to Colin, be authentic to ourselves, and be authentic to our family, community and everyone around us. That key decision I think really helped us understand that we don't have to follow the rules that society is set out for grief and loss and what you needed to do. And one of those things was the play date that we created instead of a funeral. And so we instead of a funeral, we had the community come together and we had Colins playdate, place where families could come and bring their kids and be a part of the grief. So Colin’s friends and all our family and friends came and we had bubble guppies playing, which was his favorite show. Instead of having some sort of way of people recognizing as a guest book or anything, we had folks signing children's books.

Being that Colin liked to liked books so much, we had them sign these books and put kind messages in there almost on a weekly basis. I'll go back to some of the things we said in there and find a lot of solace and comfort to have that artifact from that time so then through that play date it was just a magical event in many ways as much as it was about the grief and the sorrow and pain and suffering. It was also about the community coming together. And when I first started to see the impacts of Colin’s loss. And the wave of good that he did in this world in such a short time.

08:42 SYDNEY: And how do you think that designing that experience of Colin’s play date that was designed very much for you and Ainsley, for your family, for your friends, for your community? How do you think that changed your grief process? Grief outcomes versus if you hadn't done something that was catered to what you needed in that moment.

09:05 RILEY: Hmm, yeah, I think what it did is it gave us permission to make the choices that were right for us. I think too often in society we go with what's the choice that society wants us to make. They want us to have a funeral. That funeral is or is not based on a religious practice or other things and so it really gave us that opportunity to say we can do the really authentic things and to remember Colin and then in the end these things that we do now, we do a whole bunch of different ways of remembering Colin, they're all are authentic to us and what we do.

09:52 SYDNEY: You still see the effects of that today and the way you make decisions around it, that makes sense. You've spoken before about the guiding values that you have learned or have emerged in your life since losing. Colin, can you tell me about those?

10:09 RILEY: Yeah, it's interesting the way you put that, I like that they've emerged since those and calling. My main values of love, connection and community, they've been a part of me since the loss. But I think the loss was what and losing Colin and the grief through that. It kind of just focused me in on what those were. I think I already had a lot of them in place. It just brought to the forefront of love and understanding that love really has no limits or boundaries is that typical view of platonic love that we hear but I can love J5 or the Social Impact Lab, or the work that I do as much as I love family or I love in in different ways and I think love is incredibly something that's always driven me. I just never been able to vocalize it or understand it that way. Connection. I think connection and community are two things in me that were started as a as a young kid growing up in a small town and the importance of community and the importance of having connections within that community and having people around you and bringing those people in closer in the best ways you can and do that. I mean, I saw it in other tragedies and things in life that many of us experience. And my father was in a bad car accident and became a quadriplegic in those moments, in small towns, people come around and help each other. And in the small town that I grew up in, in Stavely, they had a benefit for him. And people were buying buns for three-four hundred dollars. 12 buns for that kind of money, and they were able to raise a lot of money. And what I realized was the benefit wasn't necessarily about that, but it was about the community coming together to grieve this type of loss that dad had changed in a way and that they were going to be there for him through it. And so I learned a lot from that experience and I think it in many ways impacts those decisions that we made with Colin.

12:27 SYDNEY: Absolutely. And so, since these events, you've done so much. You co-founded the group Dads in Grief. You've collaborated on impactful projects with Alberta Children's Hospital. And of course, you're a service designer at J5. And as you've just spoken about in terms of your perspective on love, your personal and professional journeys seem to be deeply intertwined and can you elaborate on how those different aspects of your life inform each other?

12:59 RILEY:

Yeah, I think as a service designer, you kind of looked upon as a bit of a leader and a person that people can go to and specifically in in team building and making sure that the team is cohesive and understanding. And I think some of the lessons that I've learned are all about, there's so much more in people's lives that we don't know is going on than what we see on the surface. And so taking the time to really know your teams is and the people that you're working alongside will pay off in huge dividends in the long run. Our team that I work with at the Government of Alberta, we were tasked with some really challenging work that we had to do over the past almost two years now and a lot of them were high impact, high stress projects. And I think because of the work that we did to create solid teams and understand each other that we could do the high impact work really easily because we could take care of each other and we can make sure that we were well supported. We had all the tools we needed and we were ready to roll.

14:16 SYDNEY: That makes sense. Tell me about Dads In Grief.

14:20 RILEY: Dads in Grief? Yeah, what a journey that was and a really incredible group of dads, that came together. So after we lost Colin, right away, I noticed that there was a lack of support for dads who are experiencing child loss in community. There was a lot of opportunities for moms and a lot of opportunities for even families to come together, but not a lot of work in that space that was going to help dads. So we reached out to the Children's Hospital and they have a Rotary Flames House has a grief support program for folks who are experiencing child loss and the leader there, Megan said. So why don't you start one? Why don't you go with and create something for yourself and see what happens? And I was like. I could do that. And so she set me up with another dad who lost and was kind of looking in the same vein, and his name is Luke, and together we started this journey of creating a safe space for dads to come together and do our grief and really just have conversations and connect. It was a casual program where we would meet at a local pub or in a safe space and get together, and we designed it so that it would be on different nights of the week, so dads who work could choose different, different ones to go to based on their schedules and things we knew that was a challenge for dads, and there were a lot of little things that we thought about to really make it a dad specific experience. And so we had started off with, you know, 15 dads all of a sudden showing up at our first event and it was amazing. And in those events it was we'd start off all talking and what about the hockey local flames or what's going on here and you know and oh, what do you, where do you work and inevitably you know, I could almost time it. You could almost feel the air change. What's your son or daughter's name? And beautiful conversations would start happening. And there'd be a lot of lot of lot of tears, but a lot of a lot of people coming together to share for really the first time with other fellow dads and there were some special moments in there.

16:47 SYDNEY: A lot of healing and smiles.

16:48 RILEY: Yeah, yeah. And so we continued that on. Now we ran that for just about two years. We ran the program meeting on a monthly basis and then COVID hit and our priorities shifted and my own priorities as a designer, it wasn't feeling as authentic as it was before. It wasn't feeling as something that was meeting my needs or meeting the needs of the community, even like that through COVID and some of the things. And I was in a new spot in grief. And so we decided to shut down Dads In Grief offered it up to others who may take on that that program. And now that things are back to a bit more of a safer normal. I'd love to see it come back to life. But at this point it's a program that's kind of run its course for now, and I'm really proud of the work that we did and I'm glad we also were able to tell ourselves it's OK to not continue it on. It's OK for us to not take on this burden and I think it was a lot of a lot of weight on our shoulders as leaders in that that area and being OK with letting that go was hard. But I think it was important for our own grief processes and being able to say, you know what this is, this is a boundary for us. We're at our limit. We're carrying too many stories I think might have been it. And so, yeah, that kind of ended. And as that ended, we were also creating a video to help folks in grief and loss and working again with the Children's Hospital and Megan at Rotary Flames House to create a video that could help people who have just lost and. And so we've created a video that we wanted to do a 15 minute, what's it like? And immediately our amazing videographer was like, this is going to be an hour.

18:49 SYDNEY: You may need a little more time. [Laughs]

18:51 RILEY: And probably should be like 3 hours. But no, they did a fantastic job of breaking it down and it's really been impressive to see as we released it on YouTube, somewhere accessible for folks, it's not something that's private to AHS or private to the Children's Hospital. It's something that we can send the link out for you.

19:14 SYDNEY It'll be in the show notes.

19:16 RILEY: So it's been really impressive to hear that people are watching it not because they've lost, but because someone around them has lost and they're getting information from that to say. How do I talk to these folks? How do I help in any way? Because you're in a way when you've experienced seeing someone go through that loss, you feel really helpless. There's not a lot. And you really are. There's no lot you can do to change anything, right? You can show up with your casserole and just be there, right. Those are the most important things. But that can be a really helpless feeling.

19:41 SYDNEY: Yeah, yeah, that's a really interesting insight and going back to the group, I think that we often think about the beginning of a service or the beginning of something that's happening. We're very rarely think about the end. But everything ends and so it's just as important to have a thought around when that happens, making that a conscious decision and also infusing just as much to sign into that is the beginning. So what I'm curious, what are some of the things that you in Dads in Grief you mentioned that you designed specifically for? That experience for dads? What did that look like?

20:31 RILEY: Yeah, it was. There's a lot of little things we had to do. Like I said, scheduling was one of the main ones. We knew that moms met in coffee shops. So Dad's had to meet in bars. Yeah, and it's really hard actually to gender this and and understand that and the that's in the conventional terms and the conventional way of thinking of grief and loss, there's a lot of lthat gendering that does happen.  We know that was part of the the thing that was happening with Dads in Grief is like where does that end up going that'd be really interesting. The other thing we thought about lots was so as we're sitting there, we're coming into a table in a bar. No one knows each other, how to identify each other. And so we're not going to put Dads in Grief on the table.

21:28 SYDNEY: A big sign, yeah. [Laughs]

21:30 RILEY: It’s us over here, the crying guys in the corner. Not really the best way to do that, but we decided that we’d really dive in hard to the dig term and so everything was dig and that really helped. We talked to the staff beforehand, made sure one of the experiences we had on our first was that there was a UFC Fight Night going on and so there was lots of noise in another part of it. And so we had to schedule around what was going on in the community or what events were happening at a certain pub or things which made it a little bit more challenging. And then and then finally, one of the things was really important to us was ensuring we hit up the four quadrants of the city and actually five we did downtown, north, south, east, west and just made sure we hit up pubs all around the city because we knew that dads in  the grief process need the easiest pathway to get into whatever work they need to do and we wanted to provide that easy pathway and it was OK if you showed up to one that was in your neighborhood and came and didn't come again and it was OK if you came to all of them, and I think that was purposely designed that way so that we could reach as many folks as possible and hopefully even start some of the conversations that they can take back to their families or take on to maybe they need to go and seek out therapy or other things. Right. And so there's about that starting point and giving them that initial boost to know that they could, they could take care of themselves. They don't get a lot of messaging about.

23:11 SYDNEY: Yeah, and removing those barriers as making it as seamless as possible, even though again, it's when those things aren't there, you don't really notice them. But when you do have a barrier that's stopping you, then it becomes really noticeable.

23:26 RILEY: Absolutely. And on that, I think there's some really interesting things that pregnancy and infant loss center of Calgary is doing around those barriers and they've done a really great job and when it goes back comes back to gender, different things. They do some really interesting work that folks could look into if they're searching.

23:36 SYDNEY: When you think about the aftermath of Colin’s passing now, are there elements of that process or the grief journey that you would design differently so that another family would experience it differently? Of course, Dads in Grief is one example of that, so that that dad's going through that would have something different, but I'm thinking also of that room that you were in afterwards and maybe any other thing that comes to your mind.

24:16 RILEY: There's so many. Yeah. So many things that come to mind. Because we did spend a lot of time on designing and making sure that our grief processes were authentic and I don't think there be any that I would change. I would make sure that if someone is coming into this grief process that they go with that mentality, don't copy our what we've done, don't follow what we've done because we've done these type of steps or we've there's someone else has said that you should do this. It's all about finding out what's authentic for yourself, and yes, it's really hard in those brief moments, but sometimes that's where your brain is actually working. It's hardest to come up with those things, and you'd be surprised at how your mind can actually be creative in in those in those moments and help. I know my heart was definitely driven in certain directions because I was like, no, this is the more authentic way of going. Yeah. And we did a lot and I think it is these continuing ongoing moments, and things that we do to keep the Colin alive with us today, it's every year on his birthday, we go and deliver balloons to the people who are close enough close with us. And that we deliver balloons to people who are close with us in those moments, in our family, and we deliver blue heart balloons, which is our theme. It's every morning, having a candle with next to Colin’s picture. It's seeing his causing chaos T-shirt every morning when I wake up and every night when I go to bed that's sitting in our room. That's being able to go to Fish Creek Park, sit on a bench that that we have that has his name on it, that we work so hard to do. Or even the the South Fish Creek Library and being able to go to Colin’s Corner there and experience the kids area. There's a lot. There's a lot of things there and we are very, very, very lucky. Not everyone gets the opportunity to do that in their grief process and I’m very privileged. I know that and I'm and in many ways I'm thankful for those opportunities to remember Colin, but those things didn't come out by magic either. They took work and they took us engaging and finding. My father-in-law was amazing at making sure that there were these things and we were able to do what we needed to do and find ways into those organizations to say hey we have this idea. But taking that leap of faith is hard, but it definitely paid off, and we've got some amazing ways of remembering, Colin.

27:24 SYDNEY: That's lovely to hear and definitely sounds like you've done so much to keep his memory alive and for all of us and not just your family. We're all talking about him. How do you think all of this affects who you are as a designer and how you show up in the projects that you're in?

27:50 RILEY: I like to think of it as four in my work. I was really passionate and enthusiastic. I was proud of my hard work. Now I’m focus on kindness. And bringing out the best in the people around me. Finding ways to make sure that our teams are able to do what they need to do and not worried about the small things that don't really matter in the end. Focusing in on what is our problem to solve. Before it would be, it's a problem. There's something wrong. There's something that I need to go and I need to fix this problem, but since experiencing grief and understanding and the process, I think it's become now to a point where I'm like, what is the actual problem that we're looking at? How do we solve this problem and the best way for the people that we're dealing with and I don't think I would have had that same mentality prior to loss and that without experiencing that type of empathy. And yeah, everything comes back to empathy.

29:11 SYDNEY: Do you think that it's giving you more empathy for the people you're designing with and for?

29:17 RILEY: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. I think I had a lot of empathy before, but I think this empathy is different. This empathy is about listening more than talking, and it's about understand or listening to understand rather than listening to respond. I find that's a huge shift in my mentality and folks I worked with before would probably say that that's not much of A change, but it's huge.

29:56 SYDNEY: It feels like something.

30:00 RILEY: I look back on the day Colin passed like June 19th 2018 as before Colin and then after Colin and there's a before me and then after me and just a totally different experience.

30:18 SYDNEY: Do you find that perspective helps you when you're in a really bureaucratic project? Or again, there's something coming up where people are maybe getting stressed or wound up about it and you have that perspective to say, yeah, this actually doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things.

30:37 RILEY: My goodness. Yeah, that's a lot of what happens. And although I'm working in government, I think it happens in all workplaces, but we had some urgent requests come in this past week and our team jumped on really quickly and was really excited to fix what they heard was the problem and fix it quick and let's try and a find a solution and I put everyone on pause. I said OK, we know that this is what's coming to us right now. I hear that you're all very stressed about this. But we don't know what the actual problem. What does our customer actually want in this situation? And so we set up a time to meet with that other group and realize that, number one, we couldn't provide the solution that they were looking for, but actually sent them in the direction of where they needed to go for that solution specifically. And I think that having that empathy and understanding of like, hey, these are small things that you know in the end aren't going to really matter allowed me to take that moment and take that like, OK, let's make something actually happen. That's purposeful and brings value to the folks we're serving.

31:46 SYDNEY: Yeah, that’s a good example. I think we should end where we began. How would you like listeners to understand Colin’s legacy?

32:03 RILEY: When Colin passed, I always said it was like a massive tidal wave that when he died, there was a massive tidal wave that went out and expanded out from our small community in Calgary, all the way out and we're still feeling the waves to this day and we will continue to feel those waves. The more I speak his name, the more waves we'll hear and the more of things that will happen and it was all based on love.

32:40 SYDNEY: It’s the simple things at the end of the day.

32:42 RILEY: Yeah, totally

32:44 SYDNEY: I want to thank you so much for joining us and allowing all of our listeners to listen to your story. It's an important one. It's an impactful one and your journey is a testament to the transformative power of, of empathy, of love, of community, of connection. All these things we've talked about. So thank you, Riley.

33:05 RILEY: And thank you. Thank you for all  you're doing in this work and sharing the messages like this that that can only help people. And I hope people can find some value in experiencing this story.

33:19 SYDNEY: Awesome. And we will have all of the links and sources that Riley mentioned in the show notes, so feel free to check those out. For more inspiring stories and conversations, listeners can explore other episodes of Responsible Disruption on platforms like Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Until next time.

[Outro music]

That's all for today's episode of Responsible Disruption. Thank you for tuning in and we hope you found the conversation valuable. If you did, don't forget to follow, rate, and share wherever you get your podcasts. To stay up to date on future episodes and show notes, visit our website at thesocialimpactlab.com. Follow us on social media and until next time, keep on designing a better world.