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Providing a Permanent Home Base For Grieving Kids and Families

HOME FOR GOOD: Cutting the ribbon when Good Grief first moved into its home on Mapleton Road in September 2015 were, from left: Plainsboro Deputy Mayor Neil J. Lewis, Plainsboro Mayor Peter Cantu, program participants Emma and Erin Legacki, and Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert. A major donation by the family of Margaret Anne Wilby on April 26, 2018, a decade after her death, makes the house a permanent home for the organization.

By Anne Levin

For children devastated by the death of a parent or sibling, Good Grief Princeton has provided comfort and support services since 2012. By 2015, the program had outgrown its rented space at Trinity Church and settled in to more spacious facilities at 5 Mapleton Road.

Thanks to a major gift from a former client, that home is now permanent. On April 26 — exactly 10 years after Margaret Anne Wilby died suddenly, leaving her husband Pete Wilby and five children aged 4 to 27 — the family has given back to the organization that helped them grieve. The building is now known as the Margaret Anne Wilby Center.

“This is an amazing gift. It says a lot about who we are and the community we live in,” said Joe Primo, Good Grief’s chief executive officer. “Mercer and Middlesex counties have the second and third highest population of grieving children in New Jersey, according to Social Security and the U. S. Census Office. So having this center here is really critical to supporting a lot of kids in these communities.”

Good Grief was founded in 2004 in Summit, with a mission of “ensuring that no child in New Jersey ever has to grieve alone,” according to its website. Pizza dinners for families, group meetings for children and adults, arts and crafts, a hospital room, and a “volcano room” for physically expressing emotions are among the programs that offer community-based peer support. A center in Morristown was soon established, and it wasn’t long before a waiting list had to be compiled. “We had a lot of families driving up to Morristown from Princeton,” said Primo, “and we realized there was a need here.”

In 2012, Primo met Princeton gastroenterologist Dr. Robert Meirowitz, a widower with two teenaged children. “He said he’d do anything to get Good Grief to Princeton,” Primo recalled. “Our board met with him and talked about how to make this work. We had an inaugural fundraiser and raised over $50,000.”

A connection to Dr. Meirowitz brought Brannan Osburn Berman and her twin boys to Good Grief after her husband Alexander died from complications of a bone marrow transplant five years ago. The boys were only 3 years old.

“We had moved here from New York City to be near my parents,” said Berman, who is director of individual giving for McCarter Theatre. “We really didn’t know a lot of people here. I saw a flyer at Starbucks in MarketFair for Good Grief, and I googled it while waiting for my coffee. A week later my father, who was a patient of Dr. Meirowitz, said ‘You have to call Good Grief.’ I did, and that was the first step toward any bit of grieving and healing we did.”

Twins Noah and Ben were young when their father died, “but they knew enough to be uncomfortable when telling someone,” said Berman. “They would watch the reaction of the person, and they would be the ones that would almost have to take care of the adult. It made me realize we don’t have a vocabulary for grief. Because it is an uncomfortable conversation, but it happens every day. Even with 3-year-olds.”

Programs at Good Grief helped the boys, and their mother, cope. “It gave the boys a vocabulary and a comfort,” Berman said. “And it gave them validation for speaking about their father. When they were in kindergarten, the teachers were so thoughtful when it came to Father’s Day. They said, ‘We’d be happy to change the wording to make it for grandfathers, so they wouldn’t feel uncomfortable.’ But the boys said, ‘No, we’re going to make a gift for daddy.’ And I thought, this was the turning point. We’re okay. They felt comfortable enough to bring up and acknowledge their dad. It really was a focus on the memories and a way for them to honor their father. Good Grief has been fantastic in finding ways, at every developmental level of a child, to give them the tools to express their grief and talk about it.”

When families enroll at Good Grief, they provide the names of teachers, coaches, and others involved with the children’s lives. “We stay in touch with them so they are equipped to support the grieving kids, because the risk factors for grieving kids are extraordinary,” said Primo. “We also do education and advocacy, and we have a curriculum for schools.”

Primo, a past president of the National Alliance for Grieving Children, thinks of Good Grief as “a serious disrupter,” he said. “But I’m not sure that the Princeton community actually knows the gem that is in their backyard. This is actually a place of hope and a place of joy. It’s for families who want to feel better and feel normal.”

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