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WATCH | She lost her father at 14 & now her network supports kids to process their grief

Mary Robinson was just 14 years old when she lost her father to cancer. It was 1974, and at the time it was uncommon for children to receive psychological help. Yet despite their age, kids are just as aware of and affected by trauma.

“We all know about death, but we don’t know how to handle it because nobody teaches us,” Robinson says.

As a teenager, she lost all interest in school and other activities, her grades dropped, and she displayed what seemed to be bad behaviour. It was only when Robinson reached adulthood that she was able to make sense of her loss, and realise that she was in fact grieving.

Now a disaster response crisis counsellor with a Masters in Applied Psychoanalysis, she’s helping children work through their pain and develop healthy methods to process death.

“Children in grief are at risk for unhealthy and destructive behaviour,” Robinson says. Seeing the need for a support network for young people, she left her corporate job and founded Imagine, A Center for Coping with Loss in New Jersey.

Together with trained volunteers and clinical staff, Robinson runs free peer groups for those who’ve lost a loved one. During Imagine sessions, participants break bread, introduce themselves, and are prompted by group leaders to boldly mention the person they’re mourning.

“When we come to realise that loss is a natural part of life, we can find solace by opening up to others,” Robinson says.

Grief isn’t exclusive to death, and can also begin at the moment of diagnosis in the case of diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.

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Robinson’s community-based model confronts the challenges faced by children living with a family member who has a life-altering illness.

“Imagine exists to support kids in growing up emotionally resilient and able to lead meaningful and productive lives,” she says.

Robinson and her team are assisting people from different backgrounds to connect and work through their hardships.

While she encountered a lack of emotional support during a vulnerable and difficult time, it has enabled her to grow understanding of the importance of community and counselling.

“I help kids and parents realise that they’re not alone, that there is hope, and that they can have joy again in their lives,” Robinson says.