Mary Robinson imagines a world in which grief, loss and trauma are transformed into resiliency, empathy and compassion. She envisions children who have suffered significant sadness growing up emotionally healthy and leading meaningful and productive lives.
Robinson, no stranger to grief, is living proof that out of sorrow can come hope and healing. The executive director of Imagine, A Center for Coping With Loss, slated to open in Westfield on Monday, May 7, lost her father at 14.
During open houses for the non-profit organization, Robinson describes the center's mission and, with soul-baring honesty, recounts how losing their dad left an indelible mark on both her and her brother.
"One man came on a tour and heard me share my story of loss and how we kind of went off track in our lives; he (my brother) was 15 when my dad died," Robinson said. "This gentleman came up to me afterwards and he was crying and he said, 'I can't believe it. My mother died when I was 16. It changed the course of my life. I became an alcoholic. I'm 20 years sober but I never made the connection between my grief and the loss of my mom with my behavior.'
Moments like these strengthen Robinson's resolve to reach as many people as possible with the program that she believes offers both effective intervention and prevention. In 2003, Robinson founded Good Grief, whose mission is to normalize grief in communities through education, advocacy, and year-round support group programs. Started in Summit, it quickly outgrew its space. Currently based in Morristown, the organization is the fastest growing children's bereavement center in the country.
Imagine will serve children ages 3-18 and their parents as well as young adults ages 18 through their late 20s throughout Union County.
Robinson explained that approximately 20 families will arrive at the center at 6:15 p.m. one evening every other week and have dinner, typically pizza, together.
"It's a chance for families to kind of transition from their day, catch their breath and it's one less thing a single parent has to think about at the end of the day," she said. "It's just a chance to and for the families to be in community with each other and relax and talk and play."
Following the meal, everyone is welcomed at an opening circle in which a talking stick is passed and each person says his or her name and what his or her loss is before dividing into small support groups that are broken down by age groups of 3-5 year olds, 6-9 year olds, 10-12 year old, young teens, older teens, young adults and adults. The groups come together at the end of the evening for a closing circle, something Robinson called "a wonderful community ritual."
"I think the person who's grieving, they have this feeling sometimes like, 'you don't really know what I'm going through,' but when they come to Imagine they'll be like 'These people understand what I'm going through. I'm not the only one,' and that's a huge way to have a supportive experience; it normalizes it," she said. "Part of our mission is to normalize grief in our society so people don't feel so isolated and alone. But the bigger part of our mission is to help children become more resilient and learn healthy coping skills. Loss is such a part of life but nobody teaches us how to deal with it. In our society, people are kind of afraid of grief and we avoid people when they've had a loss. We don't know what to say, but yet it's all around us and again, it's such part of life."
Robinson shared these facts about children's grief:
- 1 out of 20 children under age 15 have lost one or both parents to death.
- 1 out of 7 children will lose a sibling.
- In New Jersey, there are approximately 20,000 a year under 18 who will have a parent die. In Union County, approximately 700 children annually will lost a parent to death.
- On average one out of three youth in every classroom is experiencing a loss of some kind. This includes loss due to death, divorce, parental incarceration, separation or abandonment.
- Grief is a natural response to loss for people of any age, including young children. If you are old enough to love, you are old enough to grieve.
- Significant losses such as death and divorce can have a serious impact on children and teen’s growth and development.
- Some children and teens may develop unhealthy patters of expressing their grief and may experience physical complications, depression, anti-social behavior, or failure in school.
- Children can grow through grief when given care and support. Peers can be a valuable part of that process.
- Adults can help the healing process by listening to and affirming the many feelings and thoughts which are part of the loss experience
It takes a village
Good Grief and Imagine are both modeled after the Portland, Oregon-based Dougy Center which has helped over 200 organizations get started around the country and internationally, Robinson explained.
"One of the beautiful things about this model is it's community-based," Robinson said. "We're training people in the community to facilitate the support groups. We're training people from all walks of life. You don't have to be a child specialist or a counselor or therapist, you just need to be someone who cares about children, cares about grieving adults and have the capacity to listen and not try to fix or solve or take away pain because that's our inclination to try to do that."
Robinson said people who come to training say it has completely transformed their lives and improved their interactions with their children and colleagues by teaching them how to listen.
Another aspect of the model that Robinson feels is crucial is that it is ongoing.
"One of the reasons I had wanted to start Good Grief and now Imagine is I wanted there to be a place where kids can go year round, come whenever they needed to, stay as long as they needed to," she said. "That's one of the really unique things about the program is that it's ongoing. You can leave and you can come back and that's so important for children.
"They're still growing cognitively and emotionally and psychologically. So when you're 5 years old and your dad dies, you have that experience as a 5 year old. Then you're 8 and you start to play Little League and you see all the other dads coaching. That comes back up for you. Also, your understanding of death and permanence and your understanding of the loss changes and all that you've lost. Not to have your dad there when you learn to drive a car or your first date. That's why it's good to have it be ongoing."
To be able to offer support to parents is so important as well, Robinson said.
"You want to put your oxygen mask on first before you turn to help the children with you," she said. "We want the adult in the child's life to be getting support. That really helps the child."
Eighteen members of the community have already been through the intense four-day training that took place in March. Volunteers also meet in their own groups before and after meetings so that they feel supported throughout the experience. All volunteers have undergone background checks and must comply with the organization's child protection policy.
Robinson explained that the first point of entry is to take a tour, which she said takes place in people's home within the community. It is a way of living out Imagine's mission by raising awareness and educating people in the community about the impact of loss on children and what can be done to support them and teach them healthy ways of coping with loss and painful feelings.
Paying it forward
Robinson said by teaching children healthy coping skills they in turn become the next generation of healers who can provide support to their peers.
"We keep building and making our communities more resilient and more supportive," she said. "All human beings are grieving. We are companions to the families. We're all walking hand-in-hand. We're all grievers on the journey, we walk with the children, we walk with the adults, we're not the experts."
In the fall, Imagine hopes to begin training teen facilitators who would work alongside an adult facilitator with the 3-5 year old group.
"This would be an amazing volunteer experience for them and a chance to be peer mentors," she said.
Another one of Robinson's aspirations is that one day the Department of Education or the New Jersey Education Association will mandate grief education for all people who work with children.
"The goal is that someday wherever a child turns after they've had a loss there's going to be an adult who knows how to listen and support them," Robinson said.