For more than two decades, Portland’s Center for Grieving Children has been helping kids learn to laugh again.
- By: Joshua F. Moore
Whenever Maria Gilbert and her husband, Kevin, would cross the Casco Bay Bridge into Portland’s Old Port, they passed a nondescript, brick warehouse with a small sign out front: The Center for Grieving Children. “I remember both of us saying to each other, ‘Oh my goodness, isn’t that sad,’ ” Maria recalls. “Little did I know that a few years later I’d be walking through those doors.”
When Kevin died suddenly in November 2003, Maria found herself looking to this nonprofit organization for help with her three-year-old daughter, Meghan. She, like the four thousand other Portland-area parents and children who visit the center each year, soon discovered that the center’s heartrending name doesn’t tell the whole story of what really takes place here. From youth bereavement groups to outreach services and multicultural programs for refugees, the Portland nonprofit walks children and families along a healing journey that sees tears transformed into laughter and smiles. Over the past twenty-one years, the Portland center’s programs, all of them absolutely free, have become a model for grieving centers nationwide.
“We are grief facilitators here, and that’s very different than grief counselors,” explains Anne Lynch, who has served as executive director since 2001. “You’re getting the support of people walking the same journey as you are. For children to know that there’s another child in another school that has lost a parent or a sibling, and who is now facing the same challenges, whether it’s grades slipping or people not understanding or whatnot — that’s tremendous.”
Finding such peer support was not always possible in Portland or almost anywhere in 1986, when Bill Hemmens, a local stockbroker, lost his only sister to cancer and found himself trying to help his nine-year-old niece come to terms with the loss of her only parent. Hemmens heard of a facility that had recently opened in Portland, Oregon, to help grieving children and promptly set about putting together a similar program in Maine’s largest city.
Beginning with twelve volunteers and four families, Hemmens’ nonprofit was only the third Center for Grieving Children in the country when it opened in 1988. Over the next decade it would move locations ten times: Mercy Hospital, Trinity Church, a building on Darling Avenue, and eventually the warehouse that Maria Gilbert saw in 2003. In 2007 the center completed a capital campaign and purchased a ten thousand square-foot, two-story office building at 555 Forest Avenue. With a paid staff of ten and an operating budget of $780,000, the center (www.cgcmaine.org) is funded primarily through donations, grants, United Way funding, and special events (including the past two years’ Peak Performance Maine Marathons). Now the largest grieving center in Maine — others have opened in Lewiston-Auburn, Bangor, Brunswick, Gardiner, and Waterville — the twenty-one year-old Portland center has at last secured its own stability, even as it has helped so many children and families regain theirs.
For me the model — people from all parts of the community going through a thirty-hour training and committing to volunteering at least four hours a week — just blew me away,” says Lynch, an auburn-haired Irishwoman who discovered the center when her ten-year-old daughter died suddenly in 1992. “To me it was unconditional love in its truest sense.” Rather than trying to “fix” a child or force them through the stages of grief, Lynch says the center’s bereavement facilitators serve more as listeners, “witnesses” who let each child regain control of their lives at their own pace.
Meeting once a week, up to sixty people gather in the center’s colorful “circle room” before dispersing into one of eight smaller rooms, each containing a variety of sofas, recliners, and, for the younger children, plenty of toys. The popular “volcano room,” which features padded walls and floor and a full-size punching bag, serves as a place where kids can vent their energy and frustration safely (and under adult supervision). The living room-style furnishings in the meeting rooms are quite deliberate, Lynch explains. “At a time when their own home feels so different, we want this to feel like home.” The cozy surroundings also reassure children who might never have left their parent’s side, but now must enter a group session without that person.
Maria Gilbert says her daughter, Meghan, was one such child. “I’d never really been separated from Meghan up to then, but I went into an adult room and she went into the ‘littles’ room down the hall,” she says. “It was magical. She went in and sat down at that little table and started coloring, and I went down to my room. From then on, we couldn’t wait for Tuesday nights.”
Sadly, the “Gilbert Girls” are not alone in experiencing a family tragedy — research indicates that one child in twenty will lose a parent before the age of fifteen — but not everyone who is grieving is able to drive to Forest Avenue. Therefore the center created several outreach programs, including one that travels to schools during traumatic times (Lynch notes that the center’s visit to her daughter’s school shortly after the girl’s death was the first such outreach). It also sponsors a multicultural peer support program that has shown wide-ranging, community benefits.
Started in 1997 after a young Cambodian boy was shot in Portland, the multicultural program convened a panel of immigrant leaders, police officers, funeral directors, and grief facilitators to talk about cultural differences regarding death and loss. That panel led to community-wide discussions about such issues as how bodies should be handled and by whom. In addition, immigrants began opening up about other losses they’d experienced before arriving in Portland, revealing grief that they’d not yet resolved.
Today, immigrant families have accepted that the center is a safe place to talk about their experiences; some thirty-seven immigrant children from Riverton Elementary, the East End Community School, and Lincoln Middle School made use of the program last year. “I remember a Somali parent who said, ‘I don’t believe in social work,’ ” says Shawna Ohm, a community policing coordinator with the Portland Police Department and herself a Cambodian refugee. “Within a year, that same parent said, ‘Shawna, please help me, please help my kid.’ With the Center for Grieving Children, the parents are changing. They’re letting their kids go there and talk about what they’re going through and even what they witnessed before they came here.”
Recognizing that grief can begin even before a person has died, the center’s Tender Living Care program serves families facing a life-threatening illness. With separate eight-week segments for caregivers, ill adults, and children affected by the diagnosis, the program was the first of its kind in the country when it began back in 1993.
Including children in the diagnosis is a critical part of this program. “Kids need to know, because if they’re not included in the story of what has happened, they will fill it in for themselves,” Lynch explains.
Over the next few months, the center plans to add several new support groups, including some for bereaved parents and for young widows and widowers. If the past is any indication, these individuals will find the help they need in the center’s more than two hundred volunteers. “I’ve never referred someone over there and had them come back and say, ‘They couldn’t help me,’ ” says Christopher Crawford, funeral director at Conroy-Tully Crawford in Portland. “Folks who have been in the Portland area for generations are finding help there now.”
Just as important as entering the Center for Grieving Children, though, is knowing when you are ready to leave. For Meghan Gilbert, that decision came after a few years of Tuesday night group sessions. “I just decided I didn’t need to go,” says Meghan, now eight years old. “I wasn’t really thinking about my Dad and everything.” But her mother, Maria, notes that only last fall Meghan decided she wanted to revisit the center after more than a year’s absence. Anne Lynch says it’s common for children to periodically need additional services as they grow up. “We talk about ‘time’ and ‘anniversaries,’ but you’re not ever done [grieving],” Lynch declares. “Especially for children, because you’re revisiting the loss at all sorts of developmental stages.”
Fortunately, the Center for Grieving Children is there for every one of them.
(Photograph Courtesy The Center for Grieving Children/Jane Berger)
- By: Joshua F. Moore