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Let's talk about it | Grief

The Center For Grieving Children has helped families process the loss of a loved one for 35 years. In recent years, programs have expanded to meet the need.

PORTLAND, Maine — Losing a loved one is never easy and it's an unfortunate part of reality. Behind every loss, there is a family left behind to deal with their own experiences of that death and with grief.

Anne Heros suffered her own loss just a few years after she moved to Maine from Ireland. Her 10-year-old daughter died unexpectedly.

"When something like that happens, you’re just wondering how can I be a parent that’s not a deer in the headlights, sort of way, and how am I going to parent my two boys?"

Luckily, Heros wasn't in it alone. 

Because the death of her daughter was sudden, Heros said volunteers from a relatively new organization came to her kids' school to help students process what happened.

Those volunteers were from the Center For Grieving Children in Portland. The Center has since opened a second location in Sanford. 

Founded in 1987, the center offered its services to Heros. She went to group meetings but said it took her a while to open up to the volunteers, many of whom suffered their own loss.

She said she was "blown away" at how the volunteers ran the group meetings and she wished she had the courage to return to the center as a volunteer.

Heros did just that and has been the executive director for 22 years. The safe space for grieving Mainers was just the third location of its kind in the country more than three decades ago.

Bill Hemmens was the man behind this idea.

His close friend Jacob Watson said Hemmens experienced a death in his own family and went to Portland, Oregon, and visited a grieving center and wanted to start one in his own community.

'[I] picked up Bill’s idea and it was a transformative moment for both of us," Watson said. 

Watson ran his own practice as a grief counselor before he helped open the center in Portland. He said the volunteers working with Maine families go through an intense training program before they run group meetings.

Credit: NCM

Volunteers are told there are no magic words to fix how someone feels after losing someone close to them.

“[The anwseres] come from deep within the individual person and that takes time, it takes quiet, and it takes listening," Watson said. "It’s their experience of grief, and that’s what’s important."

When a death happens in a family, Watson added, it affects everyone differently. So during meetings at the center, family members are split up into age-appropriate rooms, so they feel more comfortable and feel less pressure to either speak up or stay quiet.

Linda Kelly has been with the center for 32 years and is now tasked with training volunteers.

"We have over 100 volunteers that do all the facilitation groups and they really are the heart of the center," she said. "Without the volunteers, there wouldn’t be a Center For Grieving Children."

The center also gives volunteers the opportunity to unwind after group meetings to help them process the emotions they hear every week.

Over the decades, the center has expanded its services to help the changing needs of Mainers.

In partnership with Portland Public Schools, the center has been helping refugees who fled war-torn countries assimilate to Maine and manage their own feelings and emotions.

"It’s not just their broken hearts that they’re bringing in, but their broken spirits," Watson said.

Volunteers also help school guidance counselors when a local community experiences the loss of a student.

Heros said the organization also provides support to Mainers after a member of their family is diagnosed with a terminal illness.

"We know that there’s grief involved from the time of diagnosis, not just when the death happens," she added.

COVID-19 proved to be another challenge for staff and volunteers. Heros said she never would have imagined holding group meetings via Zoom, but they did and still have the option available.

Volunteers also hold three meetings with young adults every week.

Anyone in Maine can call the center at any time of day for advice on how to talk about grief or how to talk to their kids about the loss of a family member.

Watson remembered years ago at a board meeting, they talked about if these grief services are still needed and the answer was an overwhelming yes.

"There needs to be more compassion and more understanding and less violence," he added.

Watson said those experiencing grief are not mentally ill—it's a natural emotion many of us feel at some point in our lives.

The Center For Grieving Children was one of the first locations of its kind to open in the country and now there are more than 300 nationwide.

You can find more information about the services provided here.

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