Program is for children helping children after a loss

Posted: Wednesday, January 14, 2004

At Hospice and Home Care of Juneau, our services are not just for those who are dying. Bereavement support is an integral part of hospice care and we are always striving to more fully serve those in need. One population that has been consistently underserved in Juneau and Southeast Alaska is grieving children, teens and their families.

Counseling and supporting youth require special training. In an effort to better serve the children of our community, five individuals representing HHCJ attended the 2002 International Summer Institute at The Dougy Center for Grieving Children in Portland, Oregon. The Summer Institute offered us the opportunity to expand our knowledge of facilitating support groups and to further develop our skills for helping grieving children and teens from instructors who are unsurpassed in the field.

On October 25, 2003, we conducted our first training for group facilitators with five hospice volunteers and two community members in attendance. With the help of these trained volunteers, the HHCJ Peer Support Group for Grieving Children will begin on Wednesday, Feb. 4, and run from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., and will continue to meet every other Wednesday until the end of June.

Losing a loved one can be an isolating experience, especially for children; being with peers who have had similar experiences can help them feel less alone. Each group session will begin with a "talking circle," where participants will have an opportunity to say their names, their ages, who died and how they died. No one will ever be required to speak unless they want to. Part of our training in Portland involved facilitating a support group with children from The Dougy Center. It was an incredible experience to watch the kids make connections with each other through their introductions. When I shared that my partner had died in Alaska, the little girl sitting next to me became very animated and told me that her dad had been in Alaska when he drowned. At first it seemed like a small detail, but when that little girl leaned into me after telling her story, I was instantly made aware of how important that connection was to her. No child wants to be different; the connections made in a support group can help a child feel "normal."

It is important to remember that children are not small adults; they don't experience the world in exactly the same way adults do. Adults cope by analyzing and discussing their feelings with others; children process their grief through playing. After the talking circle, the kids in our support group will have some time just to play. Adults will be present at all times, but will not ask intrusive questions or try to interpret what the play represents.

Once the kids in the group have had time to play, the adult facilitators will offer them creative and age-appropriate activities that will encourage them to feel their feelings without necessarily having to talk. Crafts, art, games and books specifically created to help grieving children will be used during this time. Often these activities will lead to discussions about what the kids are feeling, but we trust that the healing happens even if it is not expressed verbally.

When a parent or caregiver brings a child to our support group, they will be required to stay in the building while the group is in session. During this time, we will offer the adults a facilitated peer support group of their own. The benefits of the adult group are twofold: It will provide a safe, supportive environment for parents and caregivers to process their own grief. It will also be a place to learn about the grieving process in general and how family members can help each other survive the loss of someone they loved.

One of the hardest things for adults to accept is that it is not our job to "fix" a child's grief. In fact, it's probably the one thing we can't do. What we can do is to try to communicate honestly with the child, help them find ways to express their emotions, verbally and non-verbally, and give them the permission and the space they need to grieve and grow.

For more information or to register for the group, please contact Jamie McLean at 463-6109. The deadline for registration is Jan. 23.

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