When I ask people how they heard about the bereavement program at Imagine, A Center for Coping with Loss, their response will often be very simple: “Everyone!”

That response fills me with hope. It tells me our community recognizes the emotional needs of grieving children. The culture of grief support for children has changed dramatically in the past thirty years since The Dougy Center, the nation’s first children’s grief support center, opened its doors in 1982. Adults know that death is a traumatic event for children, but that it does not need to leave a child traumatized, if they get support.

Many children who come to Imagine do so after their parent or sibling had been sick with a serious illness, so let’s back up a few weeks, months, or even years, to the moment the child learns that their parent or sibling is sick. Whether the diagnosis is chronic or terminal, the child’s life changed.

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At this point in time do adults notice a child’s need for support? Do they look for a place for their child to meet other children coping with a family member’s illness?

Overwhelmingly, they don’t.

Grief starts at the moment of the diagnosis.

A diagnosis is a loss that is often invalidated or ignored by society. This is especially true for children. Yet, we know that grief is experienced by people of all ages. We also know that grief starts at the diagnosis.

Children experience a myriad of emotions when a family member is sick. Reactions to a family member’s diagnosis are individual, cannot be mapped out, and may change over time. The internal feelings that accompany loss due to illness are called grief, which can build up over time if they are not released.

Children who live with the illness of a close family member are at risk. A study conducted by the Research Institute of Child Development and Education (2012) found that children with chronically ill parents display more internalizing problem behaviors, such as depression, anxiety, and withdrawn behavior. They also have more daily hassles, stress, and lower GPA than do children with healthy parents.

Coping With Illness Program

Children who are grieving a loss due to illness need a place to express their internal feelings externally, or rather; they need a place to mourn. They also need support from their peers. Meeting other children who also are coping with loss due to illness is normalizing experiences that can help children feel less alone.

Imagine’s Coping with Illness (CWI) program is a free peer-support program for families facing life-altering illnesses. A life-altering illness is any diagnosis that significantly changes one’s day-to-day life. Our peer-support groups meet concurrently once a month on Wednesday evenings from 6:30 to 8:30 PM. We have groups for children ages 3-18 and for parent-caregivers and parent-patients. All groups meet concurrently.

We welcome you to Imagine a World where children with ill parents or siblings get support from their peers, do not have to grieve alone, and do not lose years of their lives to unresolved grief. If you or someone you know could benefit from joining our Coping with Illness Program, please call us at 908-264-3100 or email info@imaginenj.org.