Mary's Place provides a safe environment for grieving families

By Calla Vassilopoulos - Staff Writer
Enfield, Windsor, Windsor Locks - posted Fri., Jul. 12, 2013
The memory tree at Mary's Place offers children an opportunity to share their memories with others.
The memory tree at Mary's Place offers children an opportunity to share their memories with others.

Picture a room with teddy bears the size of a 10-year-old child, an approximately 15-square-foot padded cushion 12 inches thick, a punching bag and padded walls where a child who has lost a parent or sibling can go to “let it out.” This is the volcano room, a favorite amongst many children who attend programs at Mary's Place, according to Executive Director Lisa Peluso.

“I think one of the greatest things about Mary's Place is that it offers children and families a place to come where they are not different from anyone else, where everyone here is grieving, and where they are free to express or not to express their grief,” said Peluso.

The organization, located in Windsor, was established in 1996 by Mary Keane, a former oncology nurse-clinician, with the help of the Carmon family. Keane saw a need for support groups centered around young people experiencing the death of a loved one. Prior to founding the organization, she facilitated a widows and widowers support group, as well as a group for children, which met in her own apartment.

“Kids grieve much differently than adults,” said Deb Roncari, a founding board member who knew Keane as a nurse-clinician. “They go through many different stages, and Mary thought it would be great to have the children be together, so that they would feel a common bond.”

Roncari, a Windsor Locks resident, said Keane wanted to be able to provide services for grieving families, especially children, free of charge. After more than 15 years on the board, Roncari has thought about moving on from the responsibility, but being able to watch families grow and develop connections with one another keeps her going.

Mary's Place has a strict confidentiality policy, which is intended to create a safe environment for families, specifically children, to share their “deepest, darkest feelings,” according to Christie Michaud, an Enfield resident. She and her two daughters have been using the services for more than four years.

“They nurture kids expressing themselves, even though sometimes it may not be pretty,” said Michaud.

One aspect of Mary's Place that Michaud talked about is the young volunteers. Many of the teens who offer their time received the services as a child, which she said is “enlightening” for the children currently attending the support groups.

At the beginning of each group meeting, children enter Mary's Place and sit on either a bean bag chair or a seat cushion and take turns with the talking stick, stating their name, age, who died and if they know the cause of death. After introductions, the group is broken into smaller groups and children work on projects designed by Louise Colletti, the program director. The activities are geared toward remembering the person who died or encouraging the child to express their feelings.

“One thing I learned a long time ago is our feelings themselves have no morality,” said board member Joan Baisley. “It's how we act upon them that makes it a moral act. You can love, you can hate, you can have all these emotions; but it's how we handle them which shows our character.”

One of the projects children in the group have completed is making papier mâché masks. The kids used a variety of colors and designs to express themselves. After they finished coloring the masks inside and out, they wrote how they felt on the inside and how they felt people viewed them on the outside on the corresponding parts of the mask.

One piece of artwork designed by the teen group was a poster-board containing many vertical and horizontal strips of colored paper with words describing their inner feelings. In teen groups, Peluso said, there is more talking and expressing feelings through words than there is in the younger groups.

When a child feels they have completed their work at Mary's Place, they receive a bag containing three polished, shiny and smooth rocks, which symbolize the hard work they have done while grieving. In the bag, there is also one rough and unpolished rock, which represents their ability to cope with difficult situations and acts as a reminder that grieving is a life-long process.

“Grief and dying is an abstract to someone unless it happens to you,” said Roncari. “For people who are on the outside, they might say well it's really great, but to get a good sense of it, to be inside Mary's Place, and to see what the kids do and the families do, it's amazing.”

Mary's Place invites everyone to take advantage of its free services. For enrollment information and program details, visit

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