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An OKC nonprofit wants to help children and families through loss this holiday season

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At Calm Waters Center for Children and Families, children meet in age-appropriate groups in rooms created to provide a supportive and understanding place for them to share their experiences and learn coping skills. (Photo Laura Eastes)
  • Photo Laura Eastes
  • At Calm Waters Center for Children and Families, children meet in age-appropriate groups in rooms created to provide a supportive and understanding place for them to share their experiences and learn coping skills.

During a grief support group with Calm Waters Center for Children and Families, a young child recently expressed their sorrow over the first holiday season without their grandmother, the family chef. The child explained their grandmother passed away unexpectedly and key family recipes were never passed along or shown to others. The child asked who would make their family’s traditional holiday dishes this year.

As the child and Misty Gillespie, assistant program director at Calm Waters, recalled memories about the child’s grandmother, the child gathered that this holiday season, they would miss their grandmother but look forward to the adventure of cooking to remember her.

“I’ve been saying this to a lot of school groups and support groups that it seems counterintuitive that during the holidays, we want to resist the sadness and resist the memories, but it is much more beneficial moving forward to embrace them,” Gillespie said. “Sharing memories is one of the most wonderful ways to remember someone and work through that grief journey.”

An Oklahoma City-based nonprofit organization, Calm Waters offers a supportive and understanding place for grieving children and their families to share their experiencing and feelings in group settings, thus promoting the healing process. Through various programs, Calm Waters helps children and their families in their grief journeys caused by death, divorce or other significant loss.

While Calm Waters offers year-round services, the organization’s staff and volunteers understand that for anyone grieving any sort of loss, the late-year holidays can add an extra measure of pain. Often, adults and children are already bearing more than they can while adding thoughts about an empty seat at the holiday table, holiday traditions changing or ending altogether or a card or gift that won’t arrive this year. This time of year can serve as a constant reminder that a loved one is missing.

Next Tuesday, Calm Waters hosts Hugs for the Holidays, a free support event for families affected by a loss this holiday season, which can range from death to deployment and divorce to deportation. From 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Edmond’s Clegern Elementary School, 601 S. Jackson St., children can learn healthy coping skills and how to remember the ones they are missing. Parents can find support as they meet others, share concerns and learn how to help themselves and their children through turbulent times.

“Whatever the loss that family is experiencing, it is a time to come and learn about ways to ease the pain and look for ways to honor that individual,” said Barbara Butner, Calm Waters’ executive director. “Hugs for the Holidays gives families who might not be familiar with Calm Waters an opportunity to learn more about what we do, meet the staff and understand we are here to help them through this journey. Sometimes we can have our guard up so much to protect ourselves, and it can be really hard to let that down.”

At Calm Waters Center for Children and Families, children’s memory cards of their lost loved ones hang on the wall. (Photos Laura Eastes)
  • Photos Laura Eastes
  • At Calm Waters Center for Children and Families, children’s memory cards of their lost loved ones hang on the wall.

Broadening mission

Calm Waters began when a 9-year-old OKC boy lost his father unexpectedly in 1992. Continuing with the tradition of watching ABC’s 20/20 with his father before bedtime, Jason Woodruff turned on the television to 20/20 without his father. The news segment just happened to be over The Dougy Center, a grief support center in Portland, Oregon, offering support groups to children impacted by the loss. He asked his mother if such a program existed in OKC. The answer was no; however, his mother, Sondra Woodruff, and a friend, Charlotte Lankford, teamed up with Baptist Medical Center Outpatient Counseling Department to create Calm Waters.

Twenty-five years later, Calm Waters has served 35,000 people either directly or indirectly through its various services, seminars and trainings, Butner said.

“It is child-centered, it is grief-centered,” she said. “I think because of the number of individuals who knock on our door for support, we have broadened our reach from families working through death and divorce to school groups working through a broad range of family loss issues and now parents of infant loss.”

Grief support groups meet for 12 weeks on Monday and Tuesday evenings in OKC at 4334 Northwest Expressway, Suite 101, and Edmond’s Clegern Elementary School. Groups begin again in January; the organization is currently accepting registration. The children, ages 3-18, and their parents or guardians meet in age-appropriate groups led by a trained volunteer facilitator. There is also a group session for young adults ages 19 to 25. Divorce support groups begin mid-January and meet for eight consecutive weeks. The infant loss support group is scheduled on an as-needed basis. All support groups are open to the public at no cost.

The organization is also known for its school-based groups that meet weekly for students in grades pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in the OKC metro area. Students dealing with loss issues like death, divorce, foster care, deployment, incarceration, deportation and community disasters participate.

“Grief, loss and divorce touch everyone,” Gillespie said. “No one can escape it. We can serve everyone in the community, and we would love to.”

As Calm Waters prepares for its next 25 years and more, the organization’s leaders are looking for new ways to reach and help those dealing with loss and grief. Butner said Calm Waters will continue developing programs to fit the community’s unique needs.

“We are getting a number of calls from families of terminally ill children,” Butner said. “How do you prepare families and the sibling of the child who is dying? We are certainly more open than ever before with addressing the needs of the community when it deals with grief and pending grief. We are looking at ways that we can provide services to families who have or had a tragic loss.”

Visit calmwaters.org.

Print headline: Grief and loss; A local organization continues in its mission to help children and families dealing with grief and loss this holiday season and into the new year.

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