Charlie Oldfield snuggled up on the couch next to his mother one night in March 2012. When he woke the next morning, she felt cold. He tried to wake her, but she wouldn’t wake up. His mother, Miriam, had died that night as a result of her mixing medicines to combat a cold.
From that moment on, the lives of Charlie, now 13, and his sister Haley Flanagan, 14, were turned upside down. The children had just moved into their first “forever home” on the West Side and were very excited, said their grandmother, Betsey Stilson-Neil. They had lived in rentals until then, and it was only weeks after finalizing the sale on the house that their mother died.
Haley and Charlie moved from their West Side home to live with their maternal grandparents in the Northeast Heights. They said goodbye to their friends and pets, and made all of these changes without the love and support of their mother.
“Death is so final,” Stilson-Neil said. “We found that for months, we would be waiting for her to come through the door again.”
Shortly after Miriam’s death, one of Haley’s teachers gave her a flier for the Children’s Grief Center of New Mexico. The family soon began attending weekly meetings.
The Children’s Grief Center of New Mexico began in 2000, when a group of community members who had lost important family members came together, according to Jade Richardson Bock, executive director of the center. When she began volunteering in 2003, Bock said there wasn’t a staff, and the center had one meeting per week. Since then, it has grown to a staff of six, has 100 volunteers, and hosts six meetings per week.
The center provides free support meetings for grieving children and their family members. Stilson-Neil described it as a safe environment where her family could grieve and express emotions that they usually had to suppress. It also allows for individual grieving processes.
“(The children are) very different in the way that they work through these tremendously heavy feelings,” she said.
While Charlie doesn’t like to expose his feelings, Haley is extremely vocal, she said. The center provided different activities that helped each child cope with individual grief.
“They make it comfortable there for when you release what you say about your loved one that died, and you usually have a lot of fun,” Charlie said.
When they started at the center, both children were experiencing guilt.
“Charlie talked about waking up with the blanket on him, snuggled next to his mother who was very cold,” Bock said. “Charlie thought that if he would have put the blanket on his mom, his mom would still be alive. Can you imagine living with that belief for five minutes, let alone five or 50 years?”
Haley felt guilty because she didn’t wake up to take a glass of water to her mother.
“I think I felt guilty because my body was telling me to do something that might have helped her, but I didn’t,” she said. “Like it might have helped her get help more quickly.”
But Haley said that the grief center made her feel less angry and guilty by helping her realize that her mother’s death was not her fault.
Initially, many children are intimidated, anxious or angry, Bock said.
“But over time, they start to loosen up, and when you walk through the building at night you hear a lot of laughter,” she said. “That’s surprising for people.”
Haley said that to children who are nervous about attending a meeting at the center, she would tell them that there is nothing to be afraid of.
“When I started I wasn’t shy but I wasn’t talkative either, and they included me in things,” she said. “They have a rule called the right to pass, and anything you don’t want to talk about, you can say I want to pass, and they’ll pass you.”
Meanwhile, as grandparents, Stilson-Neil and her husband, John Neil, had to adjust to raising children in their home again, while at the same time, coping with their own grief over Miriam’s death. The grief center also hosts meetings for the families of children at the same time as the children’s meetings.
“(The meetings) gave me time away from the children to express what I was feeling,” Stilson-Neil said. “Adults have a baseline that they know they’re away from when they’re in grief. The adult groups were different in that we all realized we were not functioning at our baseline. It was a time we could all let down and grieve, and a time to share wisdoms of what was working for other people and other people’s children. I came away feeling very grateful for the strength to continue in a productive way.”
To support the center, Bock encourages people to attend its 10th annual Healing Hearts Luncheon & Silent Auction on Feb. 3. The center does not receive government funding and is dependent on donations from individuals and businesses to provide its services.
Bock added that the organization is always looking for volunteers, and people interested should visit www.childrensgrief.org or call 323-0478.
“We really just want to be there to help families after a death, any kind of death,” she said. “That’s what we do.”