Children and family grief support

Posted: Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Hospice and Home CareBy Mary Cook

I first became aware of bereavement services for children when my lifelong friend, Karen, became a volunteer facilitator at The Center for Grieving Children in Portland, Maine. I remember seeing the sign on the center's building and being struck by the incongruity of the words "grieving children" surrounded by whimsical drawings of balloons and hearts that made up their logo. There was absolutely nothing whimsical about grieving children, as far as I was concerned. I admired Karen's commitment, but felt too intimidated to get involved.

Fourteen years later, I was co-facilitating, along with two other volunteers, a grief support group for children and their families offered by Hospice and Home Care of Juneau. This premier group served three girls from three different elementary schools. I think we were all nervous that first night. We sat around a low table and made highly creative nametags to wear around our necks. We introduced ourselves, then talked for about 20 minutes before one of the girls looked around the room and wondered aloud about the contents of the closet. I don't recall now what was in that closet, but I do remember someone grabbing a hula hoop off the wall and heading out into the hallway. Soon we all had hula-hoops and were twirling madly on the slick, waxed floor, laughing and trying to outdo each other. The fact that I could not keep the hoop in motion around my (ample) hips did not go unnoticed and was the source of general hilarity. Five minutes before group ended we made a circle and held hands. With cheeks flushed and eyes bright we sent a squeeze from hand to hand then broke to meet up with the mothers, who were in their own group downstairs.

Each week the group met was a mix of stories, crafts and play. We shared photos and the girls made memory boxes in honor of their loved ones. We felt a lot of feelings, but we also had a lot of fun. As one mother put it, "This group's non-threatening approach helps the children feel comfortable and welcome." Another parent said of the adult peer support group, "The grief group is a place a person can go in confidentiality to participate or to just listen to how another person feels or handles their grief; to experience grief and know it's okay, that you're not the only one. It's a time to share feelings and thoughts, which can be difficult to do in the course of a normal day."

HHCJ began offering bereavement services for children as a way of responding to the many calls we received from people looking for support. Yet, in spite of the interest, it has been a challenge finding kids to fill the group. I called my friend Karen for insight and she told me, "People fear it will be sad."

That's probably the greatest misconception. And, yes, of course there are times when it's sad, and there are tears. But it is also incredibly joy-filled. Children grieve naturally, so it is a relief for them to be around others their age who have experienced a loss. They don't have to care-take, or hide their feelings. They can play out their grief.

I remember a child in one of the groups who was barely three years old. He sat in the talking circle and listened as each child present said his or her name and age, who died, and how they died. When it got to be this child's turn he shouted, "My mom!" then ran off and kicked a ball. I rolled the ball back to him and he kicked it over and over. As young as he was, he was able to absorb the fact that everyone was talking about death, to share his own loss, then to do what he needed to do to move those sad feelings.

Most parents who have grieving children are grieving themselves. They never feel like they're doing enough for their child. One very concrete thing they can do is to enroll them in a grief support group."

HHCJ is again offering support groups for grieving children and their families. We hope to have two groups this year - one open to elementary school children and another for teens. The groups will be held in the evening at the HHCJ office building at 419 6th St. and will meet every other week throughout the school year. For more information please call 463-6111 or e-mail Jamie McLean at

• Mary Cook is a volunteer with Hospice & Home Care of Juneau, a program of Catholic Community Service. CCS assists all persons regardless of their faith.

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