OGUNQUIT — The holidays can be difficult and challenging for lots of people, especially for parents and families who are grieving over the loss of a child.

For such individuals, one key to getting through the season is not having high expectations – to resist the pressures of throwing or attending parties or projecting false cheer or the sense that everything is fine or perfect, for example.

Another key is to plan something untraditional. You could go to the beach on Christmas Day and write your loved one’s name in the sand. You could put up a Tree of Remembrance somewhere in your home. The goal is to avoid falling back into the past and instead bringing the loved one whom you’ve lost into the present holiday.

This is the advice that Deana Cavan offers to parents and families who have lost a child and are either facing their first Christmas without them or are experiencing the same recurring heartbreak they’ve known from previous holidays.

Cavan shares these helpful ideas as a result of experience: in 2015, she and her husband, Jim, lost their 10-month-old son, Everett, to a rare and aggressive form of children’s cancer. Everett – or Rett, as he was affectionately called for short – was a vibrant baby boy with big, blue eyes that were filled with wisdom. His eyes appeared so wise that his parents nicknamed him “Owl.” Rett liked to stay up late too, giving another reason why his folks found the nickname fitting.

When Rett passed away, a four-month struggle with a malignant rhabdoid tumor came to a tragic, heartbreaking end.

“I will always be a bereaved mother,” Deana Cavan told the York County Coast Star earlier this year.

Cavan is in another position from which to share advice and guidance to those who are grieving: she and her husband are the founders of Rett’s Roost, a nonprofit organization that offers retreats for families who either have a child who is struggling with cancer or have lost a child to the disease. The couple began the organization with the surplus that accrued when a GoFundMe account established to help them with their medical expenses exceeded what they needed.

Sarah Bottari, of Massachusetts, attended one of the organization’s retreats at its “heartquarters” off Route 1 in Ogunquit in June. Bottari and her husband lost their 1-year-old son, Seth, to the same type of cancer against which Rett had struggled.

“Seth was a firecracker baby – born on July 4,” Bottari said.

Like Rett, Seth had big, beautiful, blue eyes, according to his mother. He was a happy baby who “flirted with the nurses” and was known as the “mayor” of the floor of the hospital at which he stayed, she added. His signature move was a “chicken-wing wave” that he’d do with his arms.

In addition to attending a Rett’s Roost retreat in June, Bottari also attended one specifically for mothers in August. These retreats have proven a powerful and lasting blessing for Bottari, especially for the networks of people she has found.

“Having people who actually know what you went through is the greatest thing coming out of the retreats, absolutely,” Bottari said.

Bottari called the Cavans “amazing, super-open, super-friendly, and super-supportive,” and noted that they’re helping to serve the under-served community of bereaved parents. Bottari said that there are many support systems and resources to help parents when their child is suffering, but hardly any for when their child is gone and their grief remains.

“It’s really amazing that they provide this service,” Bottari said.

And it is precisely because the Cavans provide this service, and because of the positive and healing impact that they have made, that the York County Coast Star is honoring them and their organization as “Christmas Angels” this holiday season.

Deana Cavan is the executive director of Rett’s Roost, which also has a board of directors and a team of  volunteers who help prepare and carry out the retreats. Jim Cavan is the chair of the board and also the organization’s chef, serving up meals with food from local farms and businesses.

Rett’s Roost promotes what Deana Cavan describes as “healthy grief.” In an interview earlier this year, she said, “The heathiest way to grieve is to be open about losing a child.”

The Cavans started Rett’s Roost three years ago. At first, retreats focused on surviving children; at one point, they turned their attention to those in bereavement. In the beginning, retreats were held at Shiloh Farm in Eliot. Now the organization has its own retreat center, the aforementioned Heartquarters – a spin on the word “headquarters.”

For each retreat, the organization is able to welcome between 15 and 18 people, which equals about four or five families, according to Cavan.

The retreats offer grieving families tools of healing and self-care, Cavan added. Families find therapy through art and music projects. Parents can get professional massages and Reiki treatments. There are yoga and meditation classes and a writing workshop. A therapist visits the center to lead open circles where stories can be shared. Families visit the beach and Marginal Way and collect stones and shells shaped like hearts, so that they can return to the center and paint them accordingly, in tribute to their loved who is struggling or who they’ve lost.

Retreats last three days, according to Cavan – two are not enough, she added, and four or more are a difficult block of time for parents to take time off from work and other responsibilities. The retreats are free.

It's not just the community of bereaved parents that is catching on to Rett’s Roost’s importance. The overall community is too.

In September, the organization held its annual fundraiser, the Superhero 5K and Kids’ Run, at the Throwback Brewery in North Hampton, New Hampshire. The event attracted more than 300 runners and racked up roughly $27,000 for the organization.

Last month, on Giving Tuesday on Nov. 27, Rett’s Roost brought in lots of online donations - $11,461, to be exact, with $5,000 of that sum coming from the Joy in Childhood Foundation, the charitable arm of Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin' Robbins.

Deana Cavan estimates that such a boost in financial support will allow Rett’s Roost to hold as many as six retreats in 2019 – up from the yearly average of four – as well as daylong workshops. To date, the organization has helped approximately 50 grieving families since 2015.

“With the money coming in, we feel like we’re getting great encouragement to continue,” Cavan said. “People are definitely seeing the value of our work, which makes me feel great.”

For more information, please visit RettsRoost.com, call (508) 813-9222 or send an email to rettsroost@gmail.com.