Week 5: IMAGINE – A Center for Coping With Loss
My younger brother and I had been bickering more than usual the day I remember Mom giving us a spanking. It wasn’t REALLY a spanking…. more like a few swats….. and yet that day changed my life forever.
Let me set this right. Our early childhood was full of pretend worlds, imagination and long summer days and Mom was the center of that universe. She walked my brother and me to and from school every day. She played with us, read to us, took us to the park. My brother and I were always together, but, much to Mom’s frustration, I was not a kind older sister. I teased him relentlessly and regularly tricked him into doing things that got him into trouble. He would chase me to exact his revenge and this would invariably lead to our fighting. When punishment was warranted for our misbehavior, it was left for dad to dole out. On this particular day, however, Mom had had enough. She gave us each a quick spank and made us sit in chairs in the dining room facing each other. By the time dad got home, the palms of my mother’s hands were deeply bruised black and blue. I fully believed I had been so bad that I had damaged her.
What my parents had not told my brother and I was that Mom had Leukemia. All the times she said she had to travel, all the doctor visits to the house, all the times she felt run down from the ‘flu.’ My brother and I accepted the stories crafted for us and continued our childhoods oblivious of the truth. It was not long after when Mom lost her hair. But we were children and no one explained anything to us.
Imagine – A Center for Coping with Loss (IMAGINE) strives to help children and families navigate through grief caused by the diagnosis of a terminal/life-altering illness of a family member or the death of a parent or sibling. They offer free, year-round, bi-weekly, peer support groups for children 2 through 18 with concurrent support for the parent(s)/guardian(s). The groups provide a safe, healing environment for coping with the painful feelings that accompany loss. Group members share feelings and express themselves through a variety of tools such as discussion, role-playing, paint, music, writing and clay. Through these interactions family members learn healthy and constructive coping skills.
I remember my dad bringing my brother and me to the hospital only once. Dragging us past nurses arguing with him because we were too young to be in that wing, dad pushed us through the door of Mom’s room and close to her bed. She was so thin, so pale, almost unrecognizable… my brother ran towards the other side of the room crying. I was terrified by her dark, sunken eyes and confused by everything around me. Dad was still arguing with the nurse. Mom lay tangled in wires and tubes. Machines were whirring and beeping. I thought it smelled like medicine. And mom looked so…. not like mom.
When dealing with a terminal or life-altering illness, grief starts the moment of diagnosis. It’s at that moment the ‘usual’ is turned upside down and life is forever changed. Whether due to illness or death, grief quickly becomes the elephant in the room – always present but no one discusses it. IMAGINE’s goal is to bring that elephant out into the open by normalizing grief as a natural response to loss. Families begin their journey at IMAGINE by participating in a tour and talking about their loss. They are encouraged to write a note to their loved one and add it to one of the glass shadow boxes filled with notes from other families. They can also write the name of their loved one on a leaf and hang it on one of the seasonal trees painted on the walls, next to the leaves of the other families. Immediately they feel part of a community.
Not long after the hospital visit, my brother and I came home from school to find our father waiting for us on the couch. “The good Lord has taken your mother,” was all he said. I was 10. My brother was 8. Over the next year my father did the best he could with his grief but I never remember him talking with my brother and I about our Mom and what happened. I do remember all her photos and clothing disappearing and dad telling us to buck up, get to school and go on with life.
Grief is a universal human experience yet people often feel alone and isolated. As a society, we are unsure of how to talk about grief and loss because it makes us feel vulnerable and weak. Grief is scary for people looking in on those experiencing it. Children are often the forgotten mourners. We think they are naturally resilient. However, if left internalized, children will express grief in other ways such as through behavioral issues, poor school attendance, dropping grades, depression, drug or alcohol abuse, eating disorders, etc.
1 out of 3 children in any classroom is grieving a loved one or experiencing a loss of some kind due to death, parental incarceration, separation or abandonment. IMAGINE’s programs currently support almost 250 children and their families. Connecting children with similar experiences helps them understand their feelings are normal and they are not alone. IMAGINE’s groups help children build on their natural resilience and make meaning from their grief to allow for healing and growth.
IMAGINE also offers educational presentations to communities, organizations, schools and workplaces, designed to help create resilient communities able to support those who experience loss. One of their long-term goals is to bring about legislation for mandatory grief education for all NJ teachers. They also are working towards starting satellite programs in cities like Newark and Camden, where, at the High School level, almost 100% of children are experiencing the loss of someone close to them.
Looking back at the first years following my Mom’s death I can see that my dropping grades and behavioral issues were expressions of suppressed grief. At the time, programs such as IMAGINE did not exist and grief truly was the elephant in the room that no one would talk about. I can’t help but think how transformative IMAGINE’s programs can be in the lives of those experiencing loss. Programs such as this should grow like wildfire through our communities so that we, as a society, are able to promote resiliency and create a compassionate and understanding approach to the very natural feeling of grief.
To learn more about IMAGINE, make a donation, or if you know of someone experiencing grief or loss who could benefit from their program, please check out their website at: http://www.imaginenj.org/