Losing a loved one is tough at any age. But it’s especially hard for children.
Now, those children will have a place to go where people understand what they’re dealing with, with Emanuel Medical Center’s new Jessica’s House – a grief support center for children and families – set to open its doors in downtown Turlock later this month.
The center will be the first of its kind in the area, according to Emanuel, and a needed local service. One in seven people experience the death of a sibling or a parent before turning 20.
Jessica’s House has its roots in the personal experiences of Erin Nelson, the house’s director, and Danielle and Michael Everett, all of whom know a bit too much about dealing with grief.
“This is Turlock,” John Sigsbury, Emanuel Medical Center CEO said. “Groups of people see a need very close to their hearts, and they do something about it.”
When Nelson’s husband passed away, leaving her to care for two young children, it was only the support of friends and family that got her through, she said. The experience led Nelson to become a certified grief counselor – and to ask why there wasn’t a place to help children work through this challenging time.
Nelson later met the Everetts, whose daughter Jessica – the house’s namesake – passed in 2004, when the 9-year-old lost a nearly three-year battle with leukemia.
The Everetts and Nelson worked with Emanuel Medical Center to make Jessica’s House a reality – and a testament to the memory of Jessica Everett, who left a mark on Emanuel’s workers and patients.
“They knew her spirit and her affection. She was special,” Michael Everett said.
Even while dealing with her own illness, Jessica looked to help others. She would draw pictures which she would sell, using the proceeds to buy gifts for other children in the hospital.
Now, Jessica’s art hangs throughout the house, along with a plaque telling her story. And all who enter speak of a certain warmth they feel throughout the house, Michael Everett said.
“I take that as, they feel her spirit here,” he said.
Officially opening April 24, Jessica’s House will welcome two groups of children and teens daily, with afternoon and evening meeting groups. The children won’t be the only ones attending the sessions; at the same time, their caregivers will meet in a separate room in the family-focused approach.
Groups will be formed based on children’s ages, and also by the kind of loss experienced. Those with losses to cancer, for example, will be able to discuss their experiences with other children who have gone through similar experiences.
That’s an important part of making those who have experienced loss feel less alone, according to Nelson.
“They say, ‘This is the only place I feel understood,’” she said.
The house is divided into numerous rooms, where volunteers and professionals can help children work through their grief. A talking room full of soft pillows offers children a safe place to discuss how things have changed since their loss. Teens have their own dedicated room with snacks, where they can simply hang out and talk.
A play room lets children play out their experiences. They might dress as a monster to scare away their fears, act as police officers, or put on a cape to save someone.
The children really open up and tell stories with their play, often conveying more than they ever say with words, according to volunteer Bob Wurm.
“Children can’t always talk and put words to some of their feelings,” Wurm said. “Their whole medium is play.”
An art room in the back offers yet another nonverbal means of communication. Over time, Wurm said their pictures change from darker to lighter tones.
How long that change takes is up to the children — they are allowed to heal at their own pace at Jessica’s House. It’s part of what makes Jessica’s House unique, staffers said, in that grief is treated not as an illness, but as a natural response to a loss.
But the most important part is just giving children a safe, comfortable place to grieve, volunteers said.
Before, Emanuel grief groups met at the hospital – oftentimes the last place a child would want to return. But now, in Jessica’s House, children feel, in a word, at home.
“This is a place they want to come back to,” said volunteer Amy Richardson.
For more information, visit emanuelmedicalcenter.org/jessicashouse, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 250-5395.