Dalton Banting saw his mother stricken with brain tumors three years ago when he was in elementary school. He says he was so young he didn't understand.
"When I first found out, I was oblivious to the situation. I thought nothing or little of it," said Dalton, 14.
"When Mom started losing hair due to radiation treatments, I realized how bad it really was."
He said his knowledge of radiation was limited to what he'd heard about atomic bombs.
Together, Dalton, an eighth-grader, and others in a grief discussion group at Gulf Middle School are learning how to deal with some of life's toughest situations.
Gulf Middle School social worker Diane Clukey-Chenard saw several students dealing with similar grief issues and formed the small group.
Clukey-Chenard and HPH Hospice counselor Steve Brown have encouraged the students to talk openly with each other to help understand the difficulties in their young lives.
"Death is the hardest subject to talk about even for adults," Brown said as he spoke to the group in late March. "We don't know what to say or how to feel but you're already learning how to deal with this," he said. "I'm amazed at what you've done by talking with adults."
After Dalton learned his mom was sick, he searched the Internet for facts about radiation, chemotherapy and tumor treatments. Now that he understands the reality of his mom's illness, he speaks with great hope that she'll heal.
Meanwhile, he talks about it with Clukey-Chenard, Brown and group members like seventh-grader Tim DiGiorgio, 12.
"It helps to know you aren't the only one to have these feelings," Tim said. Tim's dad died of lung cancer in December. His hurt is still fresh. He'd also had experienced losing a great-grandmother, so facing death wasn't new, yet still difficult.
"It's good to know you can get help from adults," Tim said.
Like others in the group, Tim has been drawn to help other kids like himself.
He recently volunteered to co-lead grief discussion groups for students with Clukey-Chenard next year.
The group's founder says the meetings have changed her, as well.
"This has been a real process for me, too," said Clukey-Chenard. She said the death of Tim's father in December caught her unprepared. During group time, students saw her emotions surface, strong and real. They've learned grieving is a process for all, regardless of age.
Other students weighed in on the benefits of talking about issues together.
Eighth-grader Bradley Prescott, 14, has found a place to talk about cancer in his family.
"I lost my grandpa two years ago and now my mom has been dealing with breast cancer for about five years," says Bradley.
Seventh-grader Alexandra Pternitis, 13, who is dealing with her father's and grandparents' deaths, is thankful she has Clukey-Chenard for support.
"She's helped me know there's someone here to talk with and she's given me good advice," Alex said.
Brown praised the teens for thinking of others, even as they deal with their own grief.
The group planned a recent fundraiser at Astro Skate with proceeds helping the HPH Hospice-sponsored Children's Assistance Program. CAP hosts an annual summer camp for elementary students dealing with grief.
Talking about the Astro Skate event brings ready smiles among group members and enthusiastic discussion of future fundraisers.
"The money you earned will help children much younger than you," Brown told the group. "Some of the things you've dealt with already, these children haven't felt yet," he said.
The common bond of grief has brought the four students, who didn't really know each before, together. They listen, they talk, and they respect each other's feelings. Then it's time to head back to class.
"In this group we deal with things and then we put them aside and move on," said Dalton. The others nod and reach for their backpacks.