MOUNTAINSIDE, NJ — Imagine, a Center for Coping With Loss, formerly located in Westfield, celebrated the grand opening of its new home in Mountainside on Feb. 23. A large group of supporters, volunteers, friends, including Mountainside Mayor Paul Mirabelli, joined Imagine's executive director, Mary Robinson as she cut a big red ribbon to mark the official opening. 

Later, State Farm Insurance presented Imagine with a $5,000 check.     

Three separate open houses throughout the day allowed many visitors to see and take tours of the new facility.  

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Imagine, which is a 501(c)3, provides free "peer grief support services to children from 3 to 18 years of age, and young adults, 18-30," according to its website. Support groups are also provided for parents, guardians and other adults.  

Founded four-and-a-half years ago, the group operated out of the First United Methodist Church in Westfield, which provided classrooms and other spaces for them to use. After about two years, as the number of participants and volunteers grew, Robinson and her staff began looking for another home.

They found a space that was almost perfect at 244 Sheffield St. and now occupy a completely refurbished 11,000 square-foot area that provides all the space they need, from a huge "Pizza Room" to breakout rooms and offices.  

Every Monday and Tuesday there are seven or eight groups who meet at Imagine. Each group meets every other week for about two hours. On Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, the staff and volunteers do community outreach, training, new family orientation and other behind-the-scenes work.

The evening starts in the Pizza Room, which features beautiful murals on its walls, where families gather at 6:30 p.m. for dinner. After they eat, there's an opening circle during which they pass a "talking stick. It's a great opportunity for other kids to hear others talk about losing a mom or dad or sibling. It makes them realize they are not alone," said Veronica Ortiz, a facilitator who was leading a tour during the open house.

After the opening circle, children and adults meet separately in rooms designed especially for their needs. One parent room resembles a living room with comfy couches and chairs and soft lighting. Young children meet in rooms with age-appropriate toys and furniture.

Children are grouped according to age: three to five, six to 9, 10 to 12, young teens and old teens. There are also groups for parents who have lost a spouse, a child or young adults who have lost a parent. Circumstances of these deaths vary — from long illnesses to sudden deaths, including suicide, overdose and violence. The one thing everyone has in common is loss. 

There are two special rooms. One is a "Hospital Room" where children can play and reminisce about visiting their sibling or parent and recreate some of their experience. The "Volcano Room" is a spot where it is safe to express anger. 

In each room, there is the "elephant in the room," a visual reminder that everyone is at Imagine because of "grief." Participants make a game out of finding the elephant.

How It All Began

Robinson was 14 when her father died. "My brother and I did not do well" and the family was "wiped out financially," even though their mother worked two jobs, she said. There was no grief support for them or for others. 

"Years later, while working in the corporate world, I found Rainbows, and started working in this field," she said. It was a leap of faith on her part, and she said she found inspiration in John Burroughs' words, "Leap and a net will appear."  She became executive director of the state chapter of Rainbows but she still "had a dream of a place a child could go year round," with their parents. 

In 2004, she founded Good Grief, in Morristown, and later returned to school and earned her Masters degree in applied psychoanalysis. 

In 2008, she met Dr. Jerry Glasser while giving a presentation at Overlook Hospital. The next day, she learned about his interest in grief support and the rest, as they say, is history.

"Dr. Gerry Glasser asked me to to open a center here. His son, Tom, was killed on Sept. 11, (2001) and he loved our mission" and wanted a grief center for the people of Westfield and the area. Following his death in 2013, Robinson spoke about his generosity to TAPinto and credited him with providing "the startup funding for Imagine enabling us to incorporate in October 2011, hire staff and start providing services to children, families and adults on May 7, 2012." A large plaque acknowledging Glasser hangs in the entry of the new facility. 

2012 saw the launch of Imagine, where "we follow the lead of the child," using a companioning model. "We trust they have the capacity to heal," she said. 

There is a shortage of centers that provide peer grief support, she said.

"There are 20,000 children per year, every year, in New Jersey who have a parent die. That figure doesn't include children who have a sibling die," she said.  

She would like to expand Imagine's services into other communities. There is already a pilot program in Clark. Imagine conducted a workshop there and a number of people in the schools have been trained, she said. Since that time, Imagine has been approached by other schools and houses of worship, about training and starting programs in their facilities.

The board is looking at Elizabeth as a potential satellite location.

"We've hired Spanish speaking staff," with that in mind, she said. Newark and Hoboken might be possible locations for satellite, urban, facilities, she said.  

Opening new centers will require training other people to be facilitators and staff members and, as with all non-profits that offer free services, funding.  

What drives Robinson are all those children who are grieving. She is trying to find solutions to the question, "How do we help and serve more children?"

To find out more about Imagine and how to use its services, take a tour, be a volunteer, or donate, visit the website or call 908-264-3100.