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'Grief is so normal': San Antonio non-profit helps children navigate through emotional turmoil of lost loved ones

While grief never goes away completely for many, the Children's Bereavement Center of South Texas aims to help families learn ways of coping.

SAN ANTONIO — The long-lasting grief of losing a loved one is something Katie Ruder began to experience when she was barely 4 years old. 

My mom was awesome,” Katie Ruder said. It was stage 4 lung cancer, which was a huge shock because she never smoked a day in her life.”

Processing the whirlwind of emotions was challenging for Katie and her dad, Curtis, who met his college sweetheart, Becky, at Trinity University. Curtis remembers Becky as a warrior, living each day to the fullest until the end.

“She battled cancer in just the most powerful way. In fact, she was teaching her classes on Friday and died on Sunday,” Curtis Ruder said about Becky, who was a math teacher at Stephen F. Austin State University.

One experience at the grocery store sparked the need to address the grieving process in a much more productive manner.

“My dad and I were in the grocery and I saw a young woman behind us and turned around to her and said, 'Hey, will you marry my dad? My mommy died, I need a new one,'" Katie said.

The Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas, a nonprofit organization based in San Antonio, stepped in after one of Curtis’ friends made the recommendation.

The center guides children and families along their journeys of grief, providing individual and group counseling sessions while using a variety of creative methods to helping clients.

“There’s always going to be those feelings—relief after she’s died and no longer in pain and anger because why did this have to happen to me,” Katie Ruder said, recalling the times she met with other children whose parents died from a terminal illness.

“It was absolutely transformative for me and for Katie. I was certainly the only 31-year-old widow that I knew,” Curtis Ruder said.

Marian Sokol, executive director of the Children's Bereavement Center of South Texas, stressed grief doesn’t always completely go away. But learning to navigate through the complex feelings and live beyond the loss is the goal.  

“They find ways of expressing, ways of coping and ways of sharing with others that they have lost someone that they love but that doesn’t mean life has ended,” Sokol said.

It’s been a long but grateful journey for Katie Ruder, who's now on the verge of graduating from Trinity University with a bachelor’s degree in clinical psychology. She plans to attend graduate school in Oregon this August. 

The help she received at the bereavement center inspired her to one day do the same for others going through tragedy.

Mother’s Day is a day of remembrance, celebration and looking ahead to the future where love never dies.

“I want my stepmom to feel so celebrated because she’s so special in my life," Katie Ruder said. "But I also want to make sure that my mom, if she can see this, knows that I’m thinking about her. Kind of like I have a bonus mom.”