For anyone who loses a parent, a sibling or someone else they love, it can be a heartbreaking experience.
For a child, who is also dealing with other changes and chaos in his or her life, from school stress to puberty, the loss can be incredibly traumatic. Even if surrounded by loved ones, children can feel extremely alone and angry.
When Cassie lost her mom in 2011, her life was turned upside down. Devastated and afraid, Cassie unleashed her anger on her aunt and grandmother and struggled at school. Her family was desperate to help.
“As a mother, I lost my daughter,” said Cassie’s grandmother, Lenois. “But watching the daughter who’s here deal with it emotionally, I felt helpless. I prayed and cried and prayed and cried, but nothing we did helped. I’m a Christian counselor, and still nothing resonated with Cassie. We’re a close family, with each other a lot, but there were a lot of outbursts. It was devastating to see.”
That’s when Cassie learned – from a friend who had lost her stepfather – about Annie’s Hope, an organization dedicated to providing support for children grieving the death of a loved one.
At Annie’s Hope, Cassie attended a support group and retreat with children her age, while Lenois and Cassie’s aunt, Carla, participated in a group for parents and grandparents. In time, the family was able to find healing.
Remarked Lenois. Cassie's Grandmother: “We haven’t seen an outburst in months. She’s a pleasure to be around, and she shares what she has learned with others. Her social skills have escalated, she has lots of friends, and participates in plays and the school choir.”
For Cassie, now 16, Annie’s Hope rescued her from the darkness. “It helped me out a lot. When I started at Annie’s Hope after my mom died, I felt I was alone. I had my family, but I felt empty. When I arrived, I knew I actually belonged there. There were so many kids in the same situation I was. I wasn’t the only one. It helped me understand why my mom had died.”
Proving support in any way possible
Since 1997, Annie’s Hope – The Bereavement Center For Kids has provided comprehensive support services for thousands of children dealing with loss. In fact, this year more than 700 kids and adults were helped by Annie’s Hope.
As one of the founders of the organization, executive director Becky Byrne, has seen first-hand the devastation facing families who have lost a loved one. A former pediatric oncology nurse, Byrne often kept in touch with families after their child passed away. She quickly discovered many of the families’ needs were left unaddressed.
“There were so many recurrent themes,” she explained. “Isolation, people’s lack of understanding what grief is like, the inability for people to support someone who’s grieving for an extended period of time. Their lack of feeling like they have resources to cope. Their exhaustion, and their inability to take care of themselves.”
For children, the confusion and heartache is different. According to Byrne, society is unable to embrace kids’ grief. It’s a lifelong process that changes at every step as they grow developmentally, socially, emotionally, behavioral and spiritually.
Since each child is different, their family members and school often need guidance to help them deal with their fears, anxiety and inability to understand the circumstances.
Cassie at Camp Courage
Annie’s Hope’s services help children – and their families – process their grief, develop healthy coping skills, and regain control and empowerment. The organization offers support groups for children of all ages and teen retreats. In addition, participants can attend Camp Courage or Camp Erin, overnight camps that allow for free play, group fun and quiet reflection. Between fishing, archery and sports, children can bond with each other so they feel like they’re no longer alone.
“Kids need to experience joy, fun and laughter,” remarked Byrne. “They need to understand it’s ok to feel joy and sadness and yearning all at the same time. That’s a normal part of grief.
"In society, if a grieving child is not crying or withdrawing, people think they’re no longer grieving. Kids have emotional spans. We need to allow them to experience them without judgment or criticism.”
Annie’s Hope also delivers in-school support to help educators provide better care to grieving children and to offer direct service to children who may not get help in any other way. Furthermore, parents and other family members can attend eight-week family support groups to give each a strong foundation, helping them cope and move through life in spite of their pain. And just as important, assist them in understanding and managing their child’s broken heart.
Finally, the organization hosts the Horizons support program designed to help families and children handle death and the anticipatory grief before it happens. Horizons helps families minimize regret, enhance communication and search for inner peace as they prepare to say good-bye.
For the families Annie’s Hope supports, the benefits are tremendous. Said Byrne, “The bottom line is, children can survive this. They can learn how to navigate through grief, not around it. And trust that one day they won’t feel that intense pain when they first wake up and when they go to bed.
"There is hope for their future – they will live and get to a point in life where the joy outweighs the pain, hope overcomes despair so they can lead a joyful, productive life.”
Cassie’s family knows the experience has been a journey for them, but they see the light at the end of the tunnel. “They asked us to make the commitment, and they did as well,” remarked Carla. “It doesn’t matter if you are a religious person or spiritual person. They wanted to make sure we were able to get through this stage in the season of our lives.”
Helping Annie’s Hope help others
Programs at Annie’s Hope are offered at no cost to families thanks to financial help from their supporters and donors. On Saturday, February 8, Annie’s Hope will host its 16th Annual Trivia Night at Bishop DuBourg High School starting at 6 p.m. Tickets are $30 per person and include beer, wine and snacks. A 50/50 raffle and silent auction will also be available.
In addition, A Run for Hope, Annie’s Hope’s third annual 5K and one-mile family fun walk will be held on Saturday, April 12 at Route 66 State Park.
To register for either event, visit www.annieshope.org.
Photos provided by Annie's Hope.
Metro East mom Nicole Plegge has written for STL Parent for more than 12 years. Besides working as a freelance writer & public relations specialist, and raising two daughters and a husband, Nicole's greatest achievements are finding her misplaced car keys each day and managing to leave the house in a stain-free shirt. Her biggest regret is never being accepted to the Eastland School for Girls. Follow Nicole on Twitter @STLWriterinIL
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