When a loved one dies, it can affect the whole family. The Mourning Star Center, a California Visiting Nurse Association program in Hesperia, provides free grief support for children and teens ages 3 to 18 and their families, giving them a place to express their grief with their peers.
"It's a message of hope: 'You will survive this and you will grow up to have a happy life,'" said Pamela Gabbay, M.A., Director of Community Outreach and Mourning Star Centers.
All staff and volunteers have had firsthand experience with grief. Gabbay became a grief counselor and began working for the VNA in 1996 after her parents died. She's worked with the Mourning Star Center since its inception in 2005.
Meetings are held twice a month and are available as long as the child needs it. While children attend an age appropriate group, their parents or guardians share their grief with others and learn skills to help their children.
Everybody grieves differently, Gabbay said. Children use play to work through their grief, while teenagers are quieter.
Meetings start out with circle time where kids, staff and volunteers use the time to talk about the person who died, their age and how they died. Children and teens can talk if they want to but don't have to, bereavement services coordinator Rob McEvoy said.
Then children are given free time where they can play in a variety of rooms, like the "volcano room" where kids can bounce off the padded walls, or the "dress up room" where they can express their feelings as a made up character.
Children also do art activities as a way to remember, such as collages, frames, and before and after drawings.
"It's important remembering who died," said Gabbay. Some people try not to upset the child by not talking about their loved one, which can upset the child even more.
"I see these kids come in here shy, withdrawn, angry and acting out," McEvoy said. "The same kids are smiling, laughing, friendly and polite later on and I know it works."
Seventeen-year-old Abigail Reyes volunteered at the center last year. She attended the center as a child but quit because she didn't want to talk about her grief.
"Working with the kids has helped me heal," Reyes said. And despite the difference in age, it showed her that she's not alone with her grief.
Meetings end in memory of loved ones by lighting a candle or by placing a stone in a vase.
"You'll never forget who you've lost," Reyes said. "They're always going to be a part of your life."
"People die but our love for them never does," Gabbay said.
The Mourning Star Center and The Moyer Foundation offer a free summer camp in July for grieving children ages 6 to 18 in Big Bear called Camp Erin. The center will accept applications for the camp beginning in April.
The center is located at 18169 Bear Valley Road in Hesperia. Those in need of support can call (760) 948-7249 for a tour of the center or for more information on local grief support services provided. The center always needs volunteers and donations.