After her sister passed away two months ago, Staci Hannes had trouble handling her emotions.

Hannes still tears up whenever she mentions any upcoming events related to her sister – her anniversary and birthday and their family’s beach bash.

She learned how to move on by talking about it.

Last Friday was the second time Staci and her daughter Annabelle Hannes shared their feelings with counselors at the month-old Agrace Grief Support Center.

“I felt really good when I left last time. Now I can remember and love my sister, but take care of myself at the same time,” Hannes said.

Launched in 1978, Agrace has served over 46,000 hospice and palliative care patients. Its standalone grief center, at 2906 Marketplace Drive, is the first of its kind in the Madison area.

Before it opened Aug. 14, most grief support was provided at Agrace's hospice center. But a frequent complaint was people were reluctant to go back to where their loved one had died. So Agrace began planning it two years ago, and it’s located three miles from the nonprofit organization’s E. Cheryl Parkway headquarters.

During the one-hour counseling session, Staci chatted with her counselor Cheri Milton about her family’s Labor Day plan and how much she missed her sister. Milton listened just like a friend.

“Not everybody wants to hear me, even friends. It’s good to just talk to someone who is listening,” Staci said.

When her other relative passed away two years ago, she thought she could handle it and just kept it to herself. But as her sister’s death came, she felt “it’s too much” and she needed to talk.

While talking it out is often the preferred way for adults to express their grief, that can be much more difficult for young children.

Much of the center is designed with kids in mind to help them feel comfortable, either through talking or by expressing themselves through play. Counselor Jessie Shiveler said because younger kids often don’t have the words to express their feelings, the center is a place where they can act it out.

The center has four play rooms, including a dramatic play room, a sand table and quiet room, an art craft room and a “tornado” room, designed for kids who have more energy to release. Many of the toys have been donated.

“We’re providing a safe and comfortable place for kids to act out the experience,” Shiveler said.

Shiveler has seen kids playing roles of doctor and patient in the “hospital room,” wearing a doctor jacket and stethoscope or lying on a tiny hospital bed.

The counseling model is also child-direct. When a child visits, Shiveler and Milton ask the child and parents to learn about their background, then let the child pick a favorite room.

Counselors might ask a child one or two questions related to death if the child is willing, but mostly they watch and make sure they’re safe.

Shiveler said most kids feel lonely and isolated after a loved one passes away. One of the crucial parts of grief is to share concerns with others who have similar experience. In the group support session, kids can meet with other peers and deal with the feeling in kids’ way.

Shiveler once heard a child ask another, “Who died in your house?”

“The conversation happened so natural when they were playing together,” she said.

Annabelle’s change after her first session at Agrace was one of the reasons Staci brought her back and plans to schedule more sessions. After her aunt passed away, Annabelle had been unwilling to play with friends and always wanted Staci to be around. But now she is happy to run into a play room with Shiveler.

The grief service is free for family members who have been served by Agrace or another hospice within a year. For others, it charges $10 for group sessions or $20 for family group sessions or one-on-one sessions, with fee waivers available based on need.

Some clients need more time to work through their issues, so Agrace also offers six-week sessions.

“The toughest part is that people have no idea about how long will it take for them to recover,” Milton said. “But we’re here to go through it with them.”

Contact Helu Wang at helu.wang@wcinet.com.