Nonprofit Gives Families a Safe Space to Grieve

At centers in Mountainside and Newark, Imagine helps children, teens and adults cope with loss.

Tracy Crosby sits with her four children, from left, Isabella, Mackenzie, Colin and Michaela. Courtesy of CNN

In 2017, Tracy Crosby lost her husband, Stephen, to complications of arrhythmia. Crosby, a school administrator who lives in Scotch Plains, worried about the emotional health of their four children, all under age 7. “I knew right away that I had to do something,” she says.

Within weeks, Crosby and her family were touring Imagine, a center for families coping with loss. Based in Mountainside, Imagine annually serves 160 families dealing with grief.

At Imagine, loss is the elephant in the room—literally. Multicolor-painted elephants stride alongside visitors in hallways. In rooms dedicated to peer-group support sessions, pictures of elephants serve as reminders that it’s okay to talk about grieving.

Mary Robinson, executive director and founder of Imagine, lost her father as a teenager. Though Robinson was withdrawing from her everyday life, “nobody asked what happened,” she recalls. With backing from the late Westfield philanthropist Gerald Glasser and the Glasser Foundation, Robinson sought to change the conversation. “We do this because kids in grief are kids at risk,” she says.

Imagine uses a peer-support model. Children and teens who attend group sessions conduct the conversation or play games together. A facilitator listens and guides the experience. Denis White, a volunteer facilitator for 10- to 12-year-olds, says children often express themselves through play. “Adults will put words to their grief,” he says. “Kids tend to show it in activities, body posture or art.”

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This environment helps children be open. “At Imagine,” Crosby says, loss “is a normal thing, so nobody feels different, and the kids speak about it so freely.”

While Imagine focuses on children and teens, the organization also offers programs for adults. Support sessions are free and run weekly, September through June, with an abbreviated schedule in July and August. For families dealing with a serious illness, Imagine holds nights of support; it also offers educational and support programs for schools and businesses.

The Crosby family created a memory box dedicated to Stephen. The kids decorated it and filled it with artwork, and they display or add to it on his birthday and Father’s Day.

Crosby is grateful for Imagine. “I don’t know what we would have done if we didn’t have a place like this,” she says.

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