Caring for our children who are grieving

Posted: Wednesday, June 05, 2002

At Hospice and Home Care of Juneau, our services are not just for those who are dying. We also provide support for families and caregivers, and offer extensive bereavement programs for anyone who has suffered a loss. Bereavement support is an integral part of hospice care and we are always striving to better serve those in need. One population that is underserved in Juneau and Southeast Alaska is grieving children and teens. Alaska has a high rate of accidental deaths and many of those who die unexpectedly leave surviving children. In the past month, several children in Juneau have lost a parent to illness or accident. At a local school, hospice social worker Lauren Champagne is co-facilitating a bereavement group with Ishmael C. Hope for six children who have lost a parent.

It is important to remember that children are not small adults; they do not experience the world in exactly the same way adults do. The way they react to a loss will depend a lot on their age; very young children will not be able to understand the concept of permanent loss and may expect their deceased parent to return home eventually. Older children may have a better understanding of their loss, but still lack the coping capacity to effectively deal with it. In any case, children will look toward the adults in their lives to help them understand what is happening and how to process their pain.

It is easy to underestimate the depth of a child's sorrow. Young children are not able to experience painful feelings over long periods of time. They grieve intermittently. Adults cope by analyzing and discussing their feelings with others; children play.

It is not the job of adults to try to "fix" a child's grief. In fact, it is probably the one thing we cannot do. What we can do is 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.

We receive many calls from families with bereaved children, and from school personnel anxious to learn how to support those children, as well as how to educate all their students about loss and grief. Counseling and supporting youth requires special training and sometimes we cannot provide assistance when it is needed as we lack enough trained staff and volunteers. In an effort to better serve the children of our community, we are working towardsattending the 2002 International Summer Institute at The Dougy Center for Grieving Children in Portland, Oregon.

The Dougy Center is truly the benchmark for excellence in providing compassionate care for children, teen-agers and families who are grieving a loss. Through their National Center for Grieving Children and Families they provide trainings locally, nationally and internationally to individuals and organizations wishing to support grieving children and teens. As a result of these trainings, more than 120 programs using the Dougy Center model have been started throughout the world. The Summer Institute offers 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.

Our goal in attending the Institute is to return to Juneau well equipped to offer trainings for teachers, counselors and members of the local spiritual communities. We will conduct trainings with our hospice volunteers, which will enable us to provide outreach services to schools and Southeast communities beyond Juneau. We also will offer regular bereavement groups for children and teens in addition to our regular adult support groups.

Losing a loved one can be an isolating experience for a child, being with peers who have had similar experiences can be very comforting. One of our dreams is to establish a summer camp for bereaved children and teens. Besides providing the children with a safe and fun environment to just be kids, we also hope to give them the opportunity to heal through hiking, art, dance, music, drama and storytelling. We are looking forward to utilizing the skills of local naturalists, counselors and hospice volunteers, but most importantly, we hope to draw on the wisdom of children and teens that have experienced a loss and would be willing to share their stories with those who may be just starting out on their journey through grief.

Mary Cook is the volunteer coordinator at Hospice and Home Care of Juneau.

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