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Kids and Teens in Grief

from Bob Furniss, Chaplain, Lakeview Health

In the best of all worlds children would grow up without having to face the death of someone they love, and the grief that comes with it. In the real world it doesn’t always work out that way.

Lakeview Health developed Kids & Teens in Grief, a support group for bereaved children, to address this need. This free, six-session group for school-aged children (ages 5-17) and their parents or guardian is offered three times each year, with the next session beginning April 9, 2015.

As a facilitator in this group I have had the opportunity to help support young people who have had a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, brother or sister, or school classmate die. These loved ones have died from natural causes, in an accident, by suicide, or as a result of violence or murder. And while children have a natural resilience that helps them get through the death of a loved one, there is still much that a program like Kids & Teens in Grief can provide.

Most children do get through childhood without experiencing the death of someone close to them, which is a good thing. But when a child experiences death and the grief that accompanies it, she or he can feel alone at school or with friends who have never experienced death and grief.

Kids & Teens in Grief provides a place for children to come together and form a community with other children who have experienced a loss. And while the circumstances of the death and the grief they’re experiencing may be quite different, there is still some comfort in being with other children who understand what grief feels like.

Through structured activities children are given an opportunity to recognize the feelings their grief engenders, and to find healthy ways of expressing those feelings, like anger, sadness, and worry. They are given an opportunity to create keepsakes—things like collages and memory boxes—that will help them keep the memory of their loved one alive. They undertake rituals to acknowledge the significance of their loss. And they enjoy a very tasty treat at each session.

The Kids & Teens in Grief program has an adult component to it as well. Parents or guardians have their own small group for support with trained facilitators. Often parents are in the midst of their own grief, even as they are trying to support their grieving child. The parent component of the Kids & Teens in Grief program allows them to create their own supportive community, as well as to provide a forum for them to help one another deal with the parenting issues their circumstances present.

The group facilitators, most of whom have been with this program for many years, have noticed that something happens around the third week that solidifies the children, parents and facilitators into a cohesive group. Relationships begin to form, and story-telling and sharing flows more freely. By the sixth session participants are sad to have the program come to an end.

And while we often get affirming comments from parents on our evaluation form, few are as moving as one we received a couple years ago. A mom and son attended the Kids & Teens in Grief program three years after the death of their husband/father. The mom reported that during the group session her son shared things that he had been holding in, and that his opening up in the group led to them discussing these things at home. This was a real breakthrough for both of them.

This mom appreciated the adult group as well. Her comment was that her friends at home worried about her, and that she felt bad sharing her experience with them. In this group of strangers, who were all in the same grief boat as her, she felt she could share honestly what she was experiencing. She said that rather than just worry about her, as her friends at home had, the other adults in the group could worry about one another and support one another. Her initial reluctance to join the group quickly evaporated; she ended up thinking of Kids & Teens in Grief group as the best decision and investment of time she had made since her husband died.

We may wish that our children could grow to adulthood without experiencing death and grief. But when that’s not the case, the Kids & Teens in Grief program offered by Lakeview Health can be a valuable resource for the children and parents who are affected.