Losing a family member to cancer is never easy. But when it limits a teenager's ability to function in school, grief can negatively affect their grades and their futures.

Gilda's Club South Jersey has formed teen support groups at nine high schools and one middle school in Atlantic and Cape May counties where students can meet to talk with other students who understand how cancer has changed their lives.

Teen program manager Beth Wray recently met with the Absegami Teen Club, a lively group of students who warned that their 45-minute sessions often run much longer.

"Even if you don't want to talk about it, we're good at making people comfortable," said senior Randy Bock, 18 one of the few male members of the group. "But it is harder for guys to talk."

One of the rules of Teen Club is confidentiality. What happens in Teen Club stays in Teen Club. Some students have family members currently battling cancer. Others lost parents recently, or even years before, but are still grappling with their emotions. Some couldn't wait to get back to the normacly of school, others couldn't handle their friends' sympathy.

"Not everyone handles it the same way," said senior Helen Snelgrove, 18. "But you learn how others are going through the same things you are. That makes it easier to talk to people here."

Other high schools that have Teen Clubs include Buena Regional, Cedar Creek, Charter Tech, Egg Harbor Township, Hammonton, Holy Spirit, Middle Township and most recently Mainland Regional. Upper Township Middle School also has a club. The clubs typically meet once per month at the school, and monthly as a group at Gilda's Clubhouse in Linwood. In addition to getting support, the clubs also give back through community service projects.

Wray said sometimes children don't want to talk to their parents. Being able to talk to their peers provides an outlet.

"It can be easier to talk to your peers than to your parents when you see they're grieving too," said Nhi Tram, 17.

Students admit to being nervous at first about coming, and club members will try to reach out if they hear of a student who might benefit. Beyonce Jerkins, 14, admits she was so nervous her first time that her guidance counselor had to walk her into the room.

Wray said group members will look out for each other even outside the group. They cry together, but also laugh and share good times.

"We give you permission to grieve the way you want to," Wray said. "But if you are not here, we're looking for you."

Students can get more information from guidance counselors at the participating high schools or from Wray at Gilda's Club at Beth@gildasclubsouthjersey.org, (609) 926-2699.

Contact Diane D'Amico: