When someone experiences the death of a loved one, society expects that person to return to normal within two or three months. But that’s not how grief works. Accute grief lasts an average of 18 months, with the most difficult part hitting around the 6-month mark. That’s what the experts know, and that’s why The Amelia Center exists.
In the summer of 1995, Ginger Griffies, Robin Vance, Chris Terry, and Amelia Elliott, four camp counselors from YMCA’s Camp Cosby, were going to see Pocahontas on their night off when they were killed in a collision with a train. This sudden tragedy affected many, including George and Jerrie Elliott, whose daughter Amelia was among the victims. Mr. and Mrs. Elliott attended a grief support group at their church, and there they met Joe McNulty, the Head of Pastoral Care at the time. When Mr. McNulty expressed a desire for a center dedicated to grief support for families, the Elliotts knew they wanted to be involved. Until that time, everything in Birmingham was general and blended; nothing existed to specifically support bereaved parents and children. In July of 1997, The Amelia Center opened with the support of Children’s of Alabama and the community.
Annually, The Amelia Center assists over 1,100 individuals and 375 families in a caring, compassionate environment. This includes individuals like Marina Caycedo, who lost her 14-month-old daughter Camilla to pneumonia in October of 2015. Marina met with a professional grief therapist who understood her pain wouldn’t go away in a certain amount of time and that grief was a through experience, not an around experience. With the encouragement of staff at the Amelia Center, Marina began using her art skills to heal as well as to honor her daughter.
In November, The Amelia Center held a gathering to celebrate 20 years assisting grieving families. The event was held at Birmingham’s Botanical Gardens, and it was a time for staff and families to reconnect and share hugs and memories. Lost loved ones were honored with photos and pieces of their stories.
I recently spoke with Robert Smith, the Executive Director of The Amelia Center. He was kind enough to spend over an hour telling me about the Center’s history but also answering my questions about grief and the way it affects people. As someone who has experienced sudden loss, I was eager to speak with someone who got it.
Fast Facts on The Amelia Center
– 5 therapists
– 2 support staff
– Student interns
Patients are seen Monday through Thursday from 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m., and there is no waiting list.
Services are provided at no set fee. The Amelia Center is a full department of Children’s of Alabama, and its funding comes from the hospital, United Way, client donations, and community support.
Truths About Grief
While watching someone walk through true grief is one of life’s most difficult experiences, it is extremely important. You may have good intentions in trying to make someone feel better or heal faster, but the most important thing you can do is let people hurt. Healing is extremely slow, but that’s where The Amelia Center comes in. People who deal with grief as a profession know it must be raw, it must be felt, and that it is a tool for true healing. As mentioned, grief is a through experience, not an around experience. Individual needs vary, and there is no set formula for healing. This is why the staff at The Amelia Center counsels everyone who walks through the doors individually, making sure that person’s unique needs are met.
“I know where they’re going.”
To close my conversation with Mr. Smith, I expressed my admiration for him working with grief-stricken children, parents, and families. Opening your heart to people in their darkest times, day in and day out, takes a special person, and Mr. Smith has been doing this for years. Mr. Smith explained to me that his answer when people ask how he does it, how he walks with people as they share the tragedy they’re experiencing, is simply, “I know where they’re going.” When new patients can barely speak of what they have experienced, the staff at The Amelia Center knows where they are going, and it is that culture of hope that they offer to Birmingham’s grieving families.