Making Room for Hope
The Center for Grieving Children was founded in 1987 by Bill Hemmens (1945 – 1998) to help his 9-
year-old niece, Erin, after her mother died of cancer. The Center for Grieving Children was the third such
center of its kind in the US. Bill’s drive to create a safe place for even one child who was struggling to
cope became a life-long passion to provide for families from all segments of society, to come together
and be supported and honored where they were in their journey through grief and loss.
When the Center first opened its doors it served four families with support from twelve volunteers in
borrowed space at Mercy hospital. Over the last two decades it has grown to serve more than 300 families
at The Centers permanent home and is supported by more than 150 volunteers providing over 20,000
service hours per year.
Over its 23-year history, The Center has developed a volunteer-based, peer support model for use in
groups dealing with grief and loss related to bereavement and life-threatening illness. The Center also
provides training and education to other grief support programs across the country, educators, and
professionals in how to support children and families in times of grief and loss.
The Center features four major programs – Bereavement Peer Support, Tender Living Care (a program to
support families facing life-threatening illness) Community Outreach & Education, and the Multicultural
Peer Support Program, which provides peer support groups to refugee and immigrant children who have
relocated to Maine having experienced multiple and/or traumatic losses. The Center now hosts an annual
International Training Institute which celebrates its seventh year of training for people looking to support
children and families coping with illness and death.
Although some of our educational presentations carry a fee structure, services to families are offered free
of charge, to anyone needing support for as long as needed. We are funded solely through the generosity
of the community, the United Way, and private donors; we receive no state or federal government
The Continuing Need
Research indicates that one child in 20 will lose a parent before the age of 15. Add to that those who will
lose a close family member, a friend, or a teacher, and the numbers grow dramatically. The loss of parent,
sibling or close friend can impact the emotional and mental health of a child and the impact of that loss
speaks more loudly than ever to finding innovative and cost-efficient ways of supporting children at an
early stage in their grief process, giving them the opportunity to share their feelings, break down the wall
of silence, and lead to healthy emotional development and foster resilience. The costs related to
therapeutic and pharmacological treatments in adolescent or adult life, in addition to truancy and job-
attendance issues, are significant and on the rise, so the need for alternative, low-cost answers that
provide intervention early in the development of the child is paramount.
Research indicates that five percent of children nationwide will experience the death of a parent before
age 151, and that this experience often leads to the development of depressive disorders2. Frequently,
children are holding their feelings inside when there is a death or the family is experiencing a life-
threatening illness, which can lead to “frozen” or unresolved grief – children want to protect those around
them from sadness or feel that their peer group is pressuring them to “move on” and deny the feelings
they continue to experience. The “frozen” grief can have damaging effects on their development, and can
lead to self-destructive behaviors, disorders such as ADHD, ADD, PTSD, and depression.
As Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, writes, a “step in healing involves retelling and
reconstructing the story of (a) trauma in the harbor of safety, allowing the emotional circuitry to acquire a
new, more realistic understand of and response to the traumatic memory and its triggers.”3
Simply put children who are supported in their grief are more likely to do well in school, less likely to self
medicate with alcohol and other drugs, less likely to attempt and complete suicide and less likely to enter
into the juvenile justice systems and more likely to well in later life.
Our focus is on preventative, proactive intervention for both the individual and family in addressing
issues surrounding grief and loss.
How The Center Helps
The Center has developed just such a model for working with children and families that is accessible,
effective, and economically efficient for the public health system. Through this model, children, teens,
and young adults are able to meet in age-appropriate groups to explore their own grief journey, expressed
through different modalities, including discussion, art, journaling, puppetry, and a “Volcano Room”,
complete with punching bag and other tools that provide safe, physical outlets for feelings. Adults are
also given their own groups for support to ensure that the infrastructure of the family has as much support
as possible. This model is accomplished exclusively through the work of trained volunteers, who
complete a 30-hour curriculum in group work, child development, and reflective listening. Each
volunteer gives 4 hours a week to the program.
The use of volunteers in the program provides a unique and efficient approach to supporting healthy
emotional development of grieving children, teens, and their families. Volunteers are thoroughly
screened, trained, and spend 4 hours per week at The Center. They are supported each week in their own
peer group, both before and after meeting with families, and have the resources of Center staff and
professional consultants should the need arise. Volunteers typically give over 22,000 hours in service
annually in The Center’s programs, representing a cost savings of close to $500,000 to the community.
All volunteer facilitators are present to be non-judgmental listeners and help children understand that
expression of thoughts and feelings are important and essential. Healing occurs through play and self-
Volunteer facilitators for Center Programs are carefully trained and supported because of the special work
they do with the children, teens and their families during the grief process. The 30-hour training session
offers information about grief, children, listening skills, and emotions, as well as the experience of
facilitating a group.
Peer support using volunteers versus clinicians as a model is a more accessible and efficient format for
working with young people in many different types of programs – offering an “economically feasible
approach that … does not require mental health professionals as facilitators,” and finding that
Role of Secondary Stressors in the Parental Death-Child Distress Relation, Martie P. Thompson, Journal of Abnormal Child
Psychology, October 1998
Relationship Between Specific Adverse Life Events and Psychiatric Disorders, Quyen Tiet, Journal of Abnormal Child
Psychology, April 2001
Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, Bantam Publishers, October 1995
participation in peer support groups “helped to alleviate adolescents’ emotional distress and behavioral
problems.” 4 The ease of holding groups at times that are more convenient to families (evening, weekend)
or offering programs off-site (at schools, community centers, etc.) is more flexible when working with
The work with children and families is focused on supporting resiliency and the emotional health and
intelligence of the participants – each person’s journey through grief is unique and supported by the peer
group and facilitators. It is through this work that the walls of isolation felt by grieving children and
adults begin to fall, enabling them to tap into their strength and face the challenges that accompany grief
and loss. For young children, “experiencing a loss early in development can heighten children’s
vulnerability to future losses, which can increase their risk for PTSD symptoms”5 – intervention using the
Peer Support Model gives them the tools to tap into their natural resiliency and therefore, face future
losses using what they learned through The Center.
The model itself can be replicated in any situation that requires support for peer groups around a
particular issue, as the process of group work, reflective listening, and childhood development are the
same for all types of loss.
The vision of The Center is to “be a beacon of light” and that our “volunteer-based, Peer Support Model
will be universally embraced so all children have the opportunity to foster the development of their
emotional intelligence through the grieving process.”6
All of our programs are permeated with one belief – that to foster the resilience of children, strengthen
their emotional intelligence, and build healthy families are the ultimate outcomes for our work at The
Center for Grieving Children.
Effectiveness of One-Year Participation in School-Based Volunteer-Facilitated Peer Support Groups, Adel Wassef,
Adolescence, Spring 1998
Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms in Parentally Bereaved Children and Adolescents, Laura Stoppelbein, Journal of the
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, September 2000
Center Vision, April 2002