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Palatine woman who started international grief-support program for children is dead at 67

Suzy Yehl Marta

Suzy Yehl Marta

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Updated: January 17, 2013 4:54PM

Today, the grief-support organization Rainbows has programs in all 50 states and 18 countries. Thirty years ago, it was just Suzy Yehl Marta’s project. She worked on at at her dining room table in Des Plaines.

Mrs. Marta, who founded the not-for-profit after seeing her children struggle following her divorce, died at home Sunday of pancreatic cancer. The Palatine resident was 67.

Rainbows, which is based in Itasca, has helped an estimated 2.7 million children. It bills itself as the world’s largest grief-support charity. Mrs. Marta developed it with input from Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the pioneering psychiatrist who gained fame for developing the theory of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Rainbows is “just an amazing organization,” said Carol Gall, executive director of Mental Health America of Illinois. “They’re just able to help so many children through different types of life challenges. We have used them as a resource and a reference.”

In addition to supporting children during divorce, Rainbows has expanded to aid kids struggling with loss from death or whose parents are deployed overseas with the military or in jail.

Mrs. Marta got the idea for Rainbows at a retreat she attended for divorced Catholics that gave her comfort, said her son, Tim Yehl.

He was about 7 when his parents divorced in 1976. For him, the worst time was attending a wedding anniversary party for some of his mother’s friends. That drove home the finality of his parents’ split.

“I was just miserable,” he said. “I was jealous: Why couldn’t it have been [for] my parents? What was wrong with me?”

Seeing her children’s pain, Mrs. Marta put together support-group sessions for kids to talk about their grief from loss of an intact family through death or divorce.

“They arrived at the retreats on Friday afternoon very sullen and isolated, and they left on Sunday with their heads held up high,” Tim Yehl said.

Mrs. Marta read widely and sought help from academics and mental health professionals including Kubler-Ross. The support groups used games, music and art therapy. The aim was to get kids to open up by putting them with other kids experiencing similar losses.

Megan Lawless, now 33, attended a Rainbows program when she was a 6-year-old mourning the death of her father.

“It made me feel like it was OK to be sad when I felt sad, and I wasn’t the only one going through something like this,” said Lawless, who now volunteers with the Young Professionals Board of Rainbows International.

Karyn Esbrook attended a Rainbows retreat after her parents divorced.

“I was about 9 or 10 at the time, and it was just so helpful, because immediately I knew I was not alone,” said Esbrook, who also is on the organization’s Young Professionals Board. “We knew it wasn’t our fault; the pain we were feeling was OK, and there were tactics to get through that. It was the moment that, frankly, I felt like a kid again.”

Mrs. Marta authored a book,

Healing the Hurt, Restoring the Hope, and appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show.

She adored the movie “The Wizard of Oz” and collected books by “Oz’’ author Frank Baum.

“I think the idea of being strong under adversity spoke to her, and adapting to a new situation and finding a way back home,” said her son, adding that Mrs. Marta also loved the movie’s theme song, “Over the Rainbow.” “She thought this was a good symbol and a good name, and every child deserves that rainbow. It symbolizes the promise that there is light after the storm.”

Mrs. Marta is also survived by her husband, Marty Marta; the rest of their blended family of children, Michael Yehl, Thomas Yehl, Peter Marta, David Marta and Katie Marta; a brother, Thomas Perkins; and eight grandchildren.

Visitation is 3 to 9 p.m. Thursday at Donnellan Family Funeral Services, 10045 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. Her funeral will be at 10 a.m. Friday at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Glenview.

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