The children come tousled from soccer practice, tanned from Ocean City. From all the carefree haunts of summer they come, brandishing their innocence as if it were a banner.
They're skinned-kneed, everyday kids -- struggling to cope with a grim intruder into their fragile lives.
"Welcome to our group," says the woman standing before them. "This is a very special group. It is different from any other group you have gone to before."
Sponsored by the Stella Maris hospice care program, the group is for children grieving over the death of a loved one. It's called Me Too!, in the sense that a child, in death's numbing wake, is often overlooked but silently cries out: I count, too!
These 10 children attended six weekly sessions of 90 minutes each this summer at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Towson. A Sun reporter observed as they drew pictures, passed around photographs, talked about feelings and tried to understand their tormenting loss.
"When they come into this group, they think they're the only child in the world this has happened to," says Allyson Nugent, the vivacious social worker and therapist who runs Me Too! "It's important for them to know that other children are going through the same thing . . . that grief is normal and natural."
Mrs. Nugent, 33, runs groups for children ages 5 to 9 and 10 to 14. She also is working with guidance counselors in Baltimore to start groups at city schools for grieving students.
"It's not like you take them to a group when something's wrong," Mrs. Nugent says. "There could be something wrong, but maybe not."
"Kids don't have our vocabulary for loss and grief. They don't know how to express feelings. They can't say, 'Hey Mom, get me to a therapist. I need to talk about this.' "
After Mrs. Nugent's group for 5-to 9-year-olds ended last summer, the parents of three children sat at home and discussed their child's encounter with death -- in each case the first one. They hope that their story, they say, will help other adults in shock over a death, pondering how to deal with the children.
"All this is like fighting the way we were raised; we didn't talk about it," says Ernie Glinka, whose daughter attended the group during last summer and whose son is attending now. "But this has helped us know what to look for and how to react to certain things. We have a resource now if something happens in the future. We're not in this by ourselves."
Deanna James had just flicked on CNN and sat down to feed Kathryn, her 4 1/2 -month-old daughter, when she heard the last words of a news report: " . . . went down in the Potomac River today."
"And I knew what it was," she says.
She knew it was her husband's V-22 Osprey -- the experimental aircraft that takes off like a helicopter and flies like a plane -- that had been expected to land July 20, 1992, at the Marine Corps air station at Quantico, Va. It crashed into the Potomac, killing the seven people aboard. Maj. Brian J. James was the co-pilot. He was 34, a Marine test pilot, candidate to become an astronaut, husband and father of four children younger than 10.
'I miss daddy'
Christy, the oldest, had turned 9 two days earlier. The family was waiting to celebrate until her father returned. It took three days to find his body.
Ms. James made sure all four children, including the baby, went to the funeral.
"I knew one day she'd ask," Ms. James says of Kathryn, who's now 20 months old. "And I wanted to be able to say she was there."
In the months after the funeral, Christy, now 10, began throwing temper tantrums like a 2-year-old. Erin, now 7, clammed up completely. And Kyle, now 5, wallowed in confusion.
"All of them were so different," their mother says. "It opened my eyes; for as young as they are, grief is such an individual thing."
Ms. James, 34, who lives in Bel Air, sought help from a priest. The priest referred her to a counselor, and the counselor told her about Me Too! Ms. James enrolled Christy last winter. Then Erin attended in the spring, and Kyle in the summer.
Kyle was 4 when his father died. He buried leftovers in the yard. "Do you eat in heaven?" he wondered.
And he asked: "What happens to people who kill themselves? What's it like when you die?"
Ms. James' brother-in-law asked him one day: "Kyle, are you thinking about killing yourself?"
The boy replied matter-of-factly: "Yes."
"Why?" his uncle asked.
"Because I miss daddy," Kyle said. "I want to see him."
"Well," said the uncle, "people who kill themselves go to hell; they don't go to heaven. So you wouldn't see your daddy."
Kyle dropped the subject.
But it was Christy who worried her mother most. The girl was angry because her mother sold her father's car. She was angry because the family moved from St. Mary's County to Harford County. Ms. James moved to be near her husband's parents, who now live two blocks away.
"She was angry at everything, but mainly at me," Ms. James says. "She didn't want anything to change."
Christy initially didn't want to go to any group. One day she said: "I don't know why I have to go. There's nothing wrong with me."
Her mother explained: This isn't that kind of group. It's a group for kids who've lost someone special to them. It'll be kids who know what you're going through. Just try it.
"She loved it; she couldn't wait to go back," Ms. James says. "I think it helped her express her feelings in other ways besides anger.
"Before the group, if she was sad, it came out as anger directed at somebody, usually me. After the group she could cry and just say: 'I miss Daddy.' "
Ms. James then sent Erin.
"But then I found out that Erin hadn't grieved at all," her mother says. "She was my silent one."
Ms. James gathers her children into the living room to talk about the group. Kyle doesn't want to discuss it. And Erin, although less withdrawn now, is reluctant to open up to a stranger.
But Christy is a chatterbox. She says she liked the group because there was somebody to talk to. It helped her get her feelings out, she says. One of those feelings was anger. And one of the reasons she was angry, she says, was because her mother and baby sister got all the attention when her father died.
She asked someone who had come to the house to play a game. The person said no, she had to go help her mother. Christy ran outside and cried.
Her mother looks at her wide-eyed. She has never heard this before.
Then Christy says: "I thought our family was always going to be normal, always going to be happy, that nothing would ever go wrong."
"We all thought that, didn't we?" her mother says gently. "But even perfect families have things go wrong, don't they?"
Christy lowers her head and says so softly you can hardly hear: "Yep."
The little feet stamp on the church stairs. Children never seem to get anywhere fast enough -- even to a grief group.
They eye one another warily, as if this were the first day at a new school. But the lessons they'll learn in these six weeks aren't taught in the classroom.
Me Too! deals with changes people go through in life, especially after a death. It deals with the funeral, feelings and self-esteem. The final session includes a candlelight service for the children as well as their friends and relatives.
"When we go through changes, we experience a loss," Mrs. Nugent tells the children sitting in a circle in the church basement. "All through our lives we will go through changes, and all through our lives, we will have feelings of loss."
Mrs. Nugent equates changes in life, as well as the path through grief, to the metamorphosis of a butterfly.
A caterpillar crawls along, feeling low and discouraged. A cocoon is quiet, looking inward. But the butterfly that emerges is joyous and bright, feeling as if anything is possible.
"One of the biggest losses of all is when someone very special to us dies," she says. "Can anyone tell me some words that might describe these feelings of loss?"
The children come up with sad, lonely, angry, hurt, numb, even happy when remembering the one who died. Mrs. Nugent tells them that all these words, all these feelings, describe one word they may not be familiar with: Grief.
"All these feelings we have shared are normal," she says. "It's different for everybody, and there is no right way to feel."
Then Mrs. Nugent reads a story about how everything eventually dies -- fish, flowers, trees and people, too.
Ernie Glinka is the brother of Sister MaryAnn Glinka, who was slain in her Northeast Baltimore convent in March. He and his wife, Jackie, live in Baltimore and have two children, Gina, 8, and Jay, 6.
The children were extremely close to their aunt.
Mr. and Mrs. Glinka -- he is administrator of the city's retirement system, and she is a visiting nurse -- were open-minded about therapy and quick to seek it, for themselves and their children.
"I knew I needed to get help," Mrs. Glinka says. "And if I needed help, I knew my kids needed it too."
The Glinkas noticed no sadness in Gina. And that was the problem.
"Gina was euphoric," Mrs. Glinka says. She basked in all the attention -- the phone calls, flowers, food, the visitors. Even Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke stopped by the house.
Gina wanted to hold a raffle for the nuns. She wrote a play about Sister MaryAnn and wanted to perform it at school. She told the story of her aunt's death to classmates, and then started going classroom-to-classroom to tell it again.
"But I never saw Gina break down," her mother says. "She never verbalized anger, or how hurt she was, or how she's never going to see MaryAnn again."
The Glinkas heard about Me Too! from friends. They hoped their daughter would talk about her feelings in the group. She turned out to be quite talkative.
Gina talked about her anger, "because this guy robbed the sisters, and Sister MaryAnn was murdered," and her fear, "because I thought somebody else might get killed, I could be next," and her sadness, "because we had so much fun with her, I didn't want her to die."
Gina says the group taught her about grief.
"Grief is a kind of anger you just have," she says, "and nobody else can have it quite the same way. But it also is sadness and happiness. It's all different feelings inside."
The Glinkas included both children in the Masses and funeral, discussing the rituals before and after. They still take the children to visit the nuns at the convent. That's where Sister MaryAnn is buried.
Gina likes to go there "to look at my aunt," as she puts it. "This year she missed my first Communion. So I put the wreath I was wearing on my head on the grave."
The inner monster
The children sit in little chairs and pass around photographs of the special person who died: A Marine, a father and family at Disney World, an older brother burying a younger brother in the sand.
Each child tells who died, when and how. They recall the funeral: What kind of day it was, what feelings they had, what support they got.
They talk about their anger -- at a doctor, at God, at the surviving parent, even at the person who died. And they talk about how to show their anger without hurting anyone -- punching their pillow, screaming in the shower, drawing, playing sports, hitting their mattress with a tennis racket.
Mrs. Nugent steers them from discussion to drawing. And they draw lots of pictures, which, along with the photographs, go into something Mrs. Nugent calls a memory book.
The children write poems, describe their favorite memory and write letters to the person who died. This all becomes part of the book.
"It takes a lot of courage to share and talk about your feelings," Mrs. Nugent says. "If you keep sharing your feelings a little more each day, it will get easier and easier."
Finally, she reads them a story, "Don't Feed the Monster on Tuesday!" It's one of her favorites, about the monster within that chews away at a person's self-esteem.
The children listen intently, and then they draw their own inner monster. That assignment zips along, but then Mrs. Nugent asks them to list 10 things they like about themselves. Most have trouble coming up with two or three. They figure now is a good time to ask for permission to get a drink of water. The monster made them thirsty.
A special bond
Kristal Merrell doesn't say much in the group, except "I miss Ben." She can't begin to list 10 things she likes about herself. At her house later she deflects questions about the group. She acts up. She acts silly. "I really miss Ben," she says.
Kristal turned 8 on May 8. On May 21, she, her father and her 10-year-old brother, Ben, were coming home from a neighbor's house. Ben was on his bicycle. Kristal and her father, Brad, walked a few feet behind, hand-in-hand.
The three of them were on the grassy shoulder of Hanover Pike -- Route 30 -- in Arcadia in Baltimore County. They were one house away from their own. It was a Friday night, a little past 11.
Suddenly, a car swerved toward them. It struck Ben. Then it turned abruptly, barely missing Kristal and her father, and jerked back onto the roadway and drove away. Mr. Merrell ran to a neighbor's house and called 911. Kristal stayed with her brother, standing helplessly, trembling, over his broken body.
Ben died a few hours later. A Hampstead man was arrested before dawn, and he recently pleaded guilty to automobile manslaughter.
Kristal and Ben were best buddies. They played and studied, even brushed their teeth together. "They had their fights like any brother and sister," says their mother, Robin. "But they had a special bond. They looked out for each other."
A Baltimore County police officer gave Mrs. Merrell information about Me Too! She was interested, because Kristal wouldn't do her homework or even brush her teeth. She'd just scream and stamp her feet.
She says Kristal looked forward to Tuesday nights, although Kristal won't talk about it now. The family has also met with a social worker and psychologist.
"Kristal keeps everything inside," Mrs. Merrell says. "She acts like it's not for real. If she doesn't talk when she's 8 years old, what's she going to do when she's an adult?"
The children come from their summer haunts one last time.
They give each other paper butterflies on which they've written something they like about the person. Everybody is pretty "nice" and "cool" this evening.
Mrs. Nugent invites the parents and friends in, and the room gets crowded with big people. They see the children's memory books for the first time. Eyes fill with tears.
"We have been learning how important it is to allow ourselves the time to grieve and to heal," Mrs. Nugent says. "We have also learned that sharing feelings gets them out of you and allows others to know how to support you."
Then Mrs. Nugent lights one candle. And each child in turn lights a candle in memory of their special person. Mrs. Nugent recites each person's name. It gets very quiet.
She says later: "The whole funeral and everything is geared to adults. This is for them; it's kids-sized."
But it's the adults who cry.
The children gather around a table-size piece of paper on which Mrs. Nugent has written "ME TOO" in rainbow colors.
She tells the children to draw or write anything they'd like.
After a while the paper is filled. There is a heart broken in two. There are butterflies. Someone has written, "Daddy I Love You." And someone else, "We Love You Ben."
Mrs. Nugent passes out scissors, and the children cut out their creations to take home. By the time everyone is done, the paper looks as if little monsters have taken bites out of it. All that's left in the center, in the rainbow colors, is "ME TOO."
And then the children stamp up the stairs and into the quiet dusk. They promptly scatter here and there, as if someone had set 10 butterflies free.
HELP FOR CHILDREN
For information about Me Too!, contact Allyson Nugent at 252-4500, Ext. 287.
Other organizations that help grieving children:
* Hospice of the Chesapeake in Anne Arundel County, 987-2129.
* Hospice Services of Howard County, 730-5072.
* Carroll Hospice in Carroll County, 876-8044.
* Rainbows (formerly Rainbows for All God's Children) in Baltimore, 377-6907.
* The Visiting Nurse Association Hospice, 358-7300 in Baltimore and Baltimore County, 730-8080 in Howard County, 679-7702 in Harford County.