Mary Robinson's Imagine provides grief support for children whose loved ones have died

When Mary Robinson was 14, her dad died — and no one in her life knew quite what to do with the grief she and her brother experienced. Left to handle their own grief, the teens acted out and fell into depression.

Decades later, Robinson created the one thing she needed most when she was struggling with grief. Imagine, founded in 2011, is a grief support center for children in Mountainside, New Jersey. And Robinson, as Imagine's founder and executive director, is one of CNN's 2019 Heroes.

The CNN Heroes program features everyday Americans doing extraordinary things. Others chosen as Heroes so far in 2019 include a young woman providing culinary training for refugees, a superior court judge encouraging the homeless via his running club, and a diner owner feeding the homebound chronically ill. They're all helping others — but only Robinson is doing so by insisting on talking about the elephant in the room.

That's a theme at Imagine. There's an elephant somewhere in every room there — painted into a mural, pictured on a throw pillow — because, as Robinson told Legacy, "In our society, we don't really do a good job of talking about death and dying and grief. Often, grieving people say that they're being avoided. Someone will see them coming in the grocery store and go the other way because people are uncomfortable about talking with someone who's just had a loss. We always say that's the elephant in the room. Here at Imagine, we talk about the elephant."

One way they talk about the elephant in the room at Imagine is by bringing together families who have lost someone and giving them all a chance to speak about their loved one who died. Each evening at Imagine begins with a pizza dinner and moves into an opening circle. Here, each person introduces themselves and names the person who died. Putting a loss into words is important, Robinson says.

"Telling your story is a really essential and important part of mourning," says Robinson. "Telling someone what your dad was like. Telling someone what it was like when he was ill. How did you feel when he died? How did you find out he died? What was it like to go to the funeral? Telling your story. That's what people and kids get to do here."

There are more ways kids can express their grief and work through their emotions at Imagine. The Volcano Room offers padded floors and walls for an environment where it's okay to act out physically, punching pillows, banging drums, tearing up phone books. A replica of a hospital room is perfect for children whose loved one was in the hospital for a long time before death; they play there by acting out scenarios like the ones they witnessed in real life. The teen support group room gives older kids — like Robinson was when her dad died — a place to connect and to remind each other that they're not alone.

Children are in a uniquely difficult position when a close family member, like a parent or sibling, dies. They rely on their parents to get them through emotionally difficult situations like this, but after a death in the family, Mom or Dad is probably in equally bad shape as they grieve. They may not have it in them to provide the grief support their children need.

Adding to that is the fact that children can often be pushed into the background after a death. Their peers may not understand what they're going through. Their teachers are frustrated with the ways their grief manifests in school — inattention, acting out. Other adults in their life think children are resilient and they'll be able to get through the loss. 

These are among the reasons children who have a parent die are at risk for depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other issues later in life. And that's why Robinson wanted to create a grief support center focused on children — and why she called it Imagine. "I really wanted adults and children to imagine a future where they could actually thrive and grow after a loss," she says.

One of Robinson's most memorable experiences as a teen griever was receiving a single condolence card addressed just to her. Many others came to her mother, maybe with the children's names added to the envelopes, but one neighbor thought to write a note just to her. This focus on a grieving child was unusual — and it stuck with Robinson.

It was so important to her that it helped inspire Imagine's line of condolence cards designed for and by kids. They're for sale on the center's website — they charge just enough to cover their costs. And one of them quotes that card Robinson received when she was 14 and struggling.

"If you know a child who's had a loss," Robinson says, "get them a card, write them a note. Let them know that you see them, and that you're there for them, if you can be there for them. But just acknowledge their loss. I mean, I still have that sympathy note from that woman. It's yellowed and well-read, and it's in a box here in my office. A very special little box."

There are plenty of opportunities for individualized attention like that for the children who come to Imagine. They strive to keep their services open to everyone by making them completely free of charge. Many families in which a parent has died will struggle with finances, and there just might not be extra money available to pay for counseling. Imagine makes grief support accessible by operating on donations only.

And it looks like even more kids will soon have access to Robinson's kind of grief support, thanks to CNN. People who have watched the network's coverage of Imagine are reaching out to find out how they can bring this kind of program to their hometowns.

"We have gotten calls and emails from all over the world, not just all over the country," Robinson says. "From New Zealand, for example, and Chile, and Canada, and Sweden, saying, 'We need this in our community. Do you have any plans to come here? Can you open another Imagine?' We've gotten that from states all over the U.S., from people all over the U.S. I have some folks coming from Brooklyn, New York to come for a tour, to learn how to start a center."

Maybe even more important is the way CNN's coverage of Imagine has helped open up a conversation about grief. It's a nationwide conversation, but it's also a collection of one-on-one conversations, like the one Robinson had with her neighbor after the news broke that CNN was honoring her as a Hero. "This weekend," she says, "I was just gardening in the front and my 90-year-old neighbor said, 'Mary, congratulations, and I want to tell you my story. When I was nine, my dad died.' 

"And I had never known that," she continues. "We've lived next to each other for 10 years. So I think one of the things I love about [the news coverage] is it does help people start to have conversations." 
Those conversations can help heal individuals — that's why centers like Imagine exist in the first place — but they can go beyond that. The more we talk to each other about our grief, the losses we've been through and the ways they've affected us, the more normal that grief will seem. 

"They always say there's two things that everyone experiences," Robinson says, "taxes and death. And I'm like, 'No, not everybody does their taxes, but everybody will die.'" That means everybody will lose a loved one to death at some point… and talking about it helps us heal. That's what happens at Imagine, and it's what makes Mary Robinson a Hero.


Although everyone experiences bereavement and grief differently, that doesn't mean you have to do it alone. Join one of our Grief Support Groups.


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