Peer Support Helps Keep Memories Alive on Children’s Grief Awareness Day

By Lauren Wanko

They all live in different towns, go to different schools and range in age, yet these kids and teens have something in common: They’ve lost a loved one.

“All I remember was not crying the entire time, until the actual day of his funeral, walking through the door and seeing his body,” said Troy Bernauer.

“He was a great man, and it’s just a shame that he had to go,” said David Smith.

Seventeen-year-old Kristina Falletta’s father was killed in car accident.

“The night before the accident he walked in my room and said goodnight,” said Kristina. “The last thing he ever said to me was I love you and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

After her dad died Kristina’s mom brought her to Common Ground Grief Center in Manasquan which was founded in 2009 by therapist Lynn Snyder. It’s a place where kids and teens can share their experience over the loss of a loved one.

“It’s not therapy, so even though I am a therapist I believe most grieving kids do very well in a peer support program, meaning children helping children,” said Lynn.

Common Ground Grief Center operates from September through June. While the kids and teens are in their bi-weekly groups here, many of their parents and caregivers are in their own support group in another building on the property.

The teens says Common Ground has become a second home of sorts. There’s no fee or limit to the number of group meetings. The nonprofit relies on grants, donations and fundraisers. Colorful rooms are filled with costumes for dress-up, puppets for a show, some create different worlds with sand play while others paint flower pots.

“With our younger children play is their language, tools are the toys,” Lynn said.

“There’s even a play hospital room since so many kids have spent countless hours there with their parents or siblings. Michael Debiase’s dad was a 911 first responded who died years later from lung disease.

“There’s people like you,” he said. “Sadly you all met in a wake of destruction, but that destruction helped you all come so close and basically become a family.”

“I’m happy again,” said Nick Capichana.

“We’re a support group for each other when it’s needed. That’s not what our lives are focused around,” said Joshua Osowiecki.

“Your friends who haven’t gone through this have no idea what you’re thinking, what’s on your mind and what to say back to you,” said Carrie Bernauer.

“It’s hard to talk to your family about it, and it’s much easier to talk to people who feel your pain, said Emily Zimmermann.

Emily and Madison Zimmermann’s sister died after being hit by two taxis. Now they cherish the memory boxes they’ve made here.

“I can look at it whenever and just know that I still have a piece of her,” Madison said.

Lynne says she’s not trying to cure grief at Common Ground. Her hope for all these teens? That they make lifelong friendships, keep their memories alive and over time adjust to a new normal. It’s exactly what 12-year-old David is already doing.

“I’m always going to have him in the back of my head, but I just got to keep going,” he said.