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Nancy Ross doesn't like to think of what her life might be like today were it not for the Life Transitions Center.

And officials of the center don't like to think of where it might be were it not for the United Way.

Ms. Ross never will completely recover from the death of her son 10 years ago. But she has learned to get on with her life and credits the help she received from the center.

"I might have been on a path toward self-destruction without it," she admitted.

She was in the kitchen of her Williamsville home on July 3, 1986, when there was a loud explosion in the basement. She rushed down and her son, Jon, 17, was standing with his back to her and slowly turned.

She said she doesn't remember the massive abdominal wound he suffered when a large firecracker he had made exploded.

"But I remember his eyes saying, 'Mom, help me.' " He was rushed to the hospital but died a short time later.

For years, she said, she felt a physical pain that wouldn't go away. "I wasn't exactly suicidal, but sometimes I'd wish I wouldn't wake up."

She said she was referred to the center (then called Life and Death Transitions) a few months later and began with one-on-one counseling and meetings of Compassionate Friends, a support group.

"I found out that feeling crazy was normal (for someone in her situation)," Ms. Ross said.

"I was always the caregiver, the one making other people feel better. I didn't know how to ask for help myself."

She said making the physical pain go away has taken about eight years and it still returns on anniversaries and special occasions.

But she has learned to come to grips with it. "I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why. It took me six or seven years to get to the point where 'why' doesn't matter any more."

She said her son "left me the gift of being forced to find myself, or die."

Within a year of her first visit to the center, Ms. Ross was working as a volunteer answering phones. Soon she was spending 40 hours a week there and put in about a year as the paid director of volunteers.

Now she is a volunteer again, serving on the board of directors and speaking on behalf of the center.

The Life Transitions Center and Hospice Bereavement Services at 3580 Harlem Road in Cheektowaga helps about 3,000 people a year cope with death-related issues, according to Judith Skretny, executive director.

A grant from the United Way led to its establishment in 1982. The $35,000 or so a year it receives now enables it to serve people who otherwise couldn't afford it, she said.

A $10,000 project grant just received from United Way will allow it to soon open a satellite office at 766 Ellicott St.

"That will enable us to expand our outreach to the people in the city, especially the minority communities," Ms. Skretny said.

The center helps people deal with all sorts of losses, even that of a pet.

But the death of a child is usually the most difficult, Ms. Skretny said.

"It is often said that with the death of a parent we experience the death of our past. But with a child, we experience the death of our future. It's out of the normal course of things."

The annual United Way fund drive will end Nov. 6 and, at last count, was more than $5.5 million short of its goal of $18 million.

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