Nine years ago, Jessica Maitland Mayo was a working mother of two children and had been married for 20 years when her husband died by suicide. Grieving and wanting to find support for herself and her children, ages 7 and 11, she turned to Judi’s House, a non-profit organization that provides grief counseling for children and their families who have experienced a death loss. Mayo’s family spent a full year accessing the free services, and she credits the organization with helping her survive that “incredibly dark time.”
Now Mayo is remarried, her children are young adults, and she serves as the CEO of Judi’s House, which just opened a new $20-million facility in the Central Park neighborhood east of Stanley Marketplace. Judi’s House had previously used two historic mansions near City Park, but Mayo says the new 26,000 square-foot building was needed to meet the expanding demand for services. “In Colorado, 1 in 14 children will experience the death of a parent or sibling by the time they reach 18. That’s nearly 90,000 kids who will be affected by bereavement. Just having that data shows how childhood bereavement is truly a critical health issue.”
Judi’s House was started 20 years ago by former Broncos quarterback Brian Griese and his wife Dr. Brook Griese, a clinical psychologist. Brian’s mother died from breast cancer when he was just 12 years old, and Judi’s House is named after her. Brook, who has spent her entire career researching the impact of childhood trauma and loss, developed most of the curriculum and programming used at Judi’s House.
Mayo says the organization is known for helping families find healing through connection with others. It provides services free of charge to children (defined as ages 3-25) and caregivers grieving a death, thanks to philanthropic community support. Its signature program is called Pathfinders, and for 10 weeks families gather together one night a week with licensed counselors to learn coping and resiliency skills. The evening begins with a shared meal provided by volunteers for the 60-80 people in attendance. The group is then broken into small groups based on age and shared death loss experiences. “For example, in my case, my son met with kids who were 7 to 9 and had experienced a death by suicide. My daughter met with kids 11 to 13. They got to speak with their contemporaries about a shared experience that would be difficult to talk about in the real world where there might be shame or difficulty in understanding the experience.”
There are also “themed” rooms where children can work through their grief in unconventional ways: using art materials, theater costumes, and sand trays where kids create scenes using small figurines. “The sand trays allow them to create a little world that represents an experience that is difficult to talk about. It can provide a whole new way of opening up to a counselor,” says Mayo.
The most popular room is an energy room with padded walls and foam geometric shapes. “In grief, you have big grief energy. Grief is also a physical thing, so you can work through those pieces in the energy room. It’s a safe place where you can’t get hurt. You can literally bounce off the walls.”
While the kids are meeting, parents and caregivers are also divided up by death experience to learn tips and strategies for supporting a grieving child while processing their own grief. “By the end of the night when the family reconvenes, there’s some shared language. Even though the family was in different breakout groups, they have some connective glue as they talk about topics they’ve never had to wrestle with before,” says Mayo.
Zuton Lucero-Mills said her experience at Judi’s House 12 years ago was truly a gift. Her son Zumante died when he was 9 years old from a massive asthma attack. Several months after his death, Lucero-Mills, her mother, and four of Zumante’s siblings participated in the Pathfinders program. “My kids enjoyed connecting with other kids. It wasn’t therapy lying on a couch. My kids played games, they did art, they used the energy room—and all of it was a way to work through their grief,” says Lucero-Mills. “The counselors and the other families in the program really understand what you’re going through. That kind of empathy is so much more powerful than sympathy.”
In the final week of the Pathfinders program, each family makes a quilt square in honor of the person they lost. The squares are then stitched together into one quilt representing the ties that hold that Pathfinder group together. “We have close to 200 quilts now that represent the 12,000 children and caregivers who have come through our door. We have families that come back 10 years later who want to see their quilt because it means so much to them,” says Mayo.
After completing Pathfinders, families can continue to get support through a program called Connections that meets every other week. Judi’s House also offers individual and couples bereavement counseling during the day when group counseling may not be the right fit.
In addition to providing grief support services, Judi’s House formed JAG Institute in 2014 that supports the continuous development of grief-sensitive communities through nationally recognized training, education, and research initiatives for the field of childhood bereavement. “We provide data and resources to bereavement advocates around the nation, and we also go out into the community to work with first responders, teachers, and anyone who might come in contact with a child who has experienced a death loss.” The new facility will allow Judi’s House and JAG Institute to expand these services as well.
Mayo says she has been thrilled with the move to the new location, which she describes as being at the crossroads between the newer Central Park neighborhood and historic Aurora. She sees it as a metaphor for the diverse group of people that Judi’s House serves. “Grief is the great equalizer. We see people from different walks of life, different races, and different socioeconomic backgrounds. But the unifier is grief. It is the bond that helps families heal. It underscores the humanity in all of us.”
To learn more about Judi’s House and the JAG Institute, visit their website at www.judishouse.org.
Front Porch photos by Steve Larson