In the hours after her 18-year-old son died by suicide, when she felt her whole world was coming apart, Nancy Thompson picked up the phone.

Reeling from the shock of losing one of her children, she called a friend with connections to the Center for Grieving Children. Forty-eight hours later, she was sitting in the center and within days it had become an integral part of the grieving process for her family and the extended community mourning the death of a teen known for his compassion and wit.

“The center saved not only me, but the center saved my family and the greater Cape Elizabeth community,” Thompson said.

In the nearly 15 years since the Thompson family turned to the Center for Grieving Children for resources and support, the number of families impacted by suicide and overdose deaths that use services at the Portland-based nonprofit has continued to grow. Since the center opened 31 years ago, cancer has been the top reason families attend peer support groups and other bereavement programs. But in recent years, suicide and overdose deaths have risen to the No. 2 spot, according to Anne Heros, executive director for the center.

In March, the Center for Grieving Children will host a childhood bereavement conference that focuses on supporting bereaved families affected by suicide or overdose-related deaths. The keynote speaker will be Dr. Pamela Gabbay, an expert in the bereavement field and member of the national training corps for the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention. Learning sessions will cover a variety of topics, including the scope and impact of suicide and overdose loss in the community.

The conference comes at a time when one in 13 Maine children experience the death of a sibling or parent by the time they’re 18. That means 7.5 percent of children in Maine are bereaved, higher than the overall rate of 6.8 percent for the United States. Increasingly, those children are losing family members to suicide and accidental drug overdoses.

The annual rate of suicide in Maine has remained stable since 2000, but the state’s suicide rate remains higher than the United States. An average of 227 people die by suicide each year in Maine, making it the fourth leading cause of death for both youth ages 10-14 and adults 34-54. It is the second leading cause of death for Mainers between the ages of 15 and 34. State officials this month released new data showing Maine had fewer overdose deaths in 2018, reversing a devastating six-year trend of steady increases. The projected number of opioid deaths in 2018 is predicted to decrease by 13 percent, to a total of 307 opioid deaths from a peak of 354 in 2017.

“To talk about death or illness is always a hard conversation,” Heros said. “With higher incidents of suicide deaths and overdoses, we find people are struggling even more so with how to talk to children.”

Heros said she hopes the conference – which is free and open to anyone – will be helpful to people “who are in the trenches with the children.” Many children who have experienced the suicide or overdose death of a family member struggle with new and difficult feelings. Without the skills to deal with those feelings, they can start to struggle in school or get into trouble, she said.

“It’s important to rally around children to support them in the best way we can so they can navigate the new feelings they’re having,” Heros said.

Nancy Thompson was moved by the death of her son Timmy Thompson, above in a senior portrait, to be a voice for suicide prevention programs. Maine’s suicide rate, an average of 227 a year, is higher than the national average. Contributed photo

Thompson, the mother from Cape Elizabeth, believes the support and resources provided by the center in the days and weeks after Timmy’s death saved lives. Even before the funeral, facilitators from the Center for Grieving Children went to a community center in Cape Elizabeth, where 300 people gathered to talk about his death, their own feelings and risk factors for suicide.

“My biggest fear was that this was going to happen to someone else. It’s a devastating impact to not only the family, but the community,” said Thompson, who later served on the center’s board of directors. “I can’t say enough about what (the center) did to save lives and help heal people in Cape Elizabeth.”

Since her son’s death, Thompson has frequently shared her story to draw attention to depression and suicide prevention programs and is encouraged that the Center for Grieving Children is focused on bringing awareness to the needs of families affected by suicide and overdose deaths.

“The only way to save lives is by educating people,” she said.

The childhood bereavement conference is scheduled for 8 a.m. to noon on March 22 at the Kittery Community Center. Participants can register for the conference through the Center for Grieving Children website.