Annie’s Hope – Helping children heal from grief

An estimated 5.6 million children in the U.S. will experience the death of a parent or sibling by age 18. Of those, an estimated 467,000 (9.8%) will lose a parent to suicide, and 42,000 (4.4%) will lose a sibling to suicide.

Researchers believe one in 13 kids in the U.S. will suffer the loss of a parent or sibling before they turn 18. When they do, surviving parents or guardians find themselves coping with their children’s grief even as they struggle with their own. That’s where places like Annie’s Hope – The Center for Grieving Kids in Kirkwood, Mo., come in.

Founded in 1997 as the St. Louis Bereavement Center for Young People, Annie’s Hope seeks to help entire families in their mourning process. It hosts annual summer camps, teen retreats, family support groups, school-based programs and other services for those who’ve suffered a loss. It also maintains a speakers institute, grief referral service and community resource library.

Becky Byrne, founder and executive director, says whether a child has suffered a loss due to suicide, heart disease cancer, an accident or murder there are commonalities in every death, but also distinct differences and unique challenges for grieving kids and families depending on the nature of the death.

“There’s a lot of common threads that go across every death,” Byrnes told The Grief Project. “Yet, there are aspects that are raised up or more prevalent in one versus another. So normally, unless it was a death by murder, you don’t get the news involvement. You know, you don’t get somebody calling you up all the time asking for interviews or showing up in your front yard, especially, you know, once it gets on news, and it explodes all over the place. It could be that way in a suicide as well, depending on the circumstance. It could in a long term illness, but it’s less likely.”


“There’s stigma that might accompany a death by suicide or murder,” Byrne says. “Stigma you probably wouldn’t get with cancer because everybody thinks ‘Oh, cancer you know, well, everybody has it, or lots of people have it and it’s so sad. They didn’t do anything.’ 

“Well, if you come from a place of judgment, you think, ‘Oh, well, that person you know, was in the wrong place, and that’s why they got beat up to the point that their body couldn’t work anymore.’ Or ‘They’ve used drugs? Well, that was a choice they made.’ Or ‘They died by suicide because they didn’t get help.’ Because they believe if you get help, you’re all better. 

“It just depends on where you’re coming from. Sometimes life just smacks you, and makes you look at things from a different perspective. But until you get smacked, you just live in this oblivious world.”


For children who have lost a parent, grandparent or sibling, grief can be especially complicated, whether they’re very young or in their teens. Very young children may not have the words to describe what they’re feeling. Teens may have the words, but with the added challenge of facing grief just as they are getting to know who they are in life.

“They’re starting to look at well, ‘Who am I? How do I fit in the world? Especially now?’” Byrne said. “They can developmentally think about, ‘Am I still a sister? I only had one, and that one’s not alive.’ Or they might think ‘What part did I play in this?’ They can really take a lot of pieces of a puzzle and put it together. Not necessarily put it together correctly, but they can take a lot of pieces now, because they’re quite bold or they’re analytical, their head is well developed, they’ve had more social experiences. And then there is the spiritual piece of them, and they can really go there because of the analytical abilities they have.”

Grief is a universal, normal, natural response to loss.

Support and education can help families through the grief process.

There is no single path toward healing.

Grief is a life-long process whereby the goal is not to “get over the grief” but to discover a new relationship with the deceased, not based on the physical presence but on the love and memories which live on.

If given a safe, trusting place surrounded by care & support, we believe every child has the ability to heal and live a productive, joyful life.

–Annie’s Hope


Byrne started her career as a pediatric oncology nurse.

“I took care of kids with cancer. And of course, some wouldn’t survive. Annie is a kid that didn’t survive, but she did not die of cancer. (Annie was cured but later died of an infection. To read her full story visit 

“I was curious about how the families survived, so I would stay in touch with them. And I started hearing this recurring theme of:

‘I get this message of get over it.’

‘People come to the services, and then they’re gone.’

‘People walk away from me at the grocery store.’

“And then other people that you didn’t even feel like you were connected to all of a sudden, you’re having a strong connection with. So there’s social implications.

“There’s the sense of being all alone and not knowing what to do. There was the sense of, ‘I don’t even know how to talk about this to the people. How do I take care of myself when I have other other kids to take care of as well?’ 

“I just heard all these repeating messages from people and I was like, well, who’s helping these people? We’ve got to do better on this.” 

Byrne set out to change that, leaving Iowa for St. Louis to work at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, volunteering for a nonprofit that worked with kids with cancer through the camp setting. Eventually, the non-profit added on kids who were grieving their siblings’ deaths due to cancer, then started teen retreats for kids who are grieving any death.

“I was just volunteering, pulling in all this information and experience. I was just talking about I’m going to start this whenI saw a story on 20/20 about this Center in Portland, Ore., called the Dougy Center, and I was like, that’s what I’m talking about. That’s what I have in my head. So I was thrilled to find somebody else that was in the same space.”

That led to starting a bereavement program for families who had lost a child at the hospital and the community at large.

When her family was transferred to the East Coast, she enrolled in a graduate program for thanatology – a multi-disciplinary field dedicated to better understanding death, dying, grief, loss, and bereavement. As she was finishing her studies, her family moved back to St. Louis, where she completed her internship and started Annie’s Hope.

They have now been helping families heal for 26 years.

To learn more about Annie’s Hope, visit


Actively Moving Forward (AMF) (support for young adults)

The Dinner Party (support for young adults)

The Dougy Center

The National Alliance for Grieving Children

What’s Your Grief?

Published by Tim Rowden

The Grief Project is dedicated to sharing the stories of suicide loss survivors as well as information and research on suicide, mental health, advocacy and prevention. I’m a suicide loss survivor, husband, father, writer and journalist, with 33 years experience as a reporter and editor. I believe sharing our stories can help help others who are struggling, whether they are loss survivors or struggling with depression or other mental health issues. We honor them and honor our loved ones by sharing our stories.

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