Mary Robinson’s dad died when she was 14 years old. When that happened, her grades went down, she started skipping school, and she began suffering from depression.
“Textbook example of a grieving child, and yet my coach didn’t ask what’s going on, my teachers didn’t say anything simply because they didn’t know. They didn’t know to look at a child’s behavior and understand that if their behavior has changed, there is something going on,” Robinson said.
“After your parent dies everyone is sort of watching you, your fellow students are watching you, and plus kids are self-conscious anyways. So going into that with all these feelings and being expected to perform at the same level you used to is a lot of pressure for kids,” said Connie Palmer, clinical training director of Imagine.
Palmer says often the person they depended on to get through tough experiences is the person who died. That’s why Robinson started a grief support center called Image in Mountainside to give children the necessary support and a place to talk to cope with the loss of a parent or sibling.
The free, year-round grief support center groups children and young adults by age — providing services to participants from 3 to 30 years old.
Parents and guardians also have the opportunity to meet every other week.
“They all know that each other has had someone who died — accident, heart attack, illness, murder, suicide, anyway that you can die,” Robinson said. “The groups are facilitated by trained adult volunteers.”
But what Robinson discovered is the demand 20 minutes away in Newark was extreme — there was a lot of loss but too few support services.
“I went into a school here in Newark and the principal said to me 99% of the kids in the school could benefit from a loss support program,” she said.
That’s why Robinson just opened Imagine in Newark.
The orange room is a place for kids ages 6 to 9. It’s full of all sorts of toys and is a way for children to feel that they’re in a safe space. In the 7 years that the organization has been around in their one location, they’ve helped over 700 families with peer support groups.
“For example, two little boys. I was in the room and they were playing foosball and one of the boys said to the other boy, ‘Who’d you lost?’ And the other boy said, ‘What do you mean?’ And the boy said, ‘Oh I lost my dad.’ And the other boy said, ‘Yeah, me too,’ and they went back to playing foosball. So what happens is it normalizes it for kids. They realize I’m not alone,” Robinson said.
Newark resident Chantaya King is a school social worker and she looked for support groups for her own students. When she heard the center was opening in her community she signed up to become a facilitator. King says she relates to the kids because her own dad died in August of 2017.
“Just going through my own loss personally, we all need a space to talk about our grief,” King said.
“One of the things that the community has been asking us for is to also offer support for loss due to deportation and incarceration,” Robinson said.
The plan is to eventually grow Imagine to add those support services.