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Putting the “Good” in Grief For Kids Living With Loss

January 23, 2017Posted by Helaina Hovitz

Dealing with the loss of a loved one is hard for anyone, but it can be especially difficult for children and young adults. While we may assume kids have support in place during this vulnerable time, the truth is, the complexity of their needs—and that of their parents—is far greater than one would imagine.

Two nonprofits, Good Grief and Experience Camps, are working hard to provide bereaved children and their family members with specialized support through carefully designed programs, education and advocacy effort in order to help children and their parents cope in the healthiest ways possible.

In doing so, they ultimately help children avoid the risk factors associated with their bereavement in the long term, and ease the state of perpetual crisis that happens in the more immediate aftermath.

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Experience Camps offers kids a weeklong getaway and the opportunity to meet and connect with other people their age who are going through similar challenges. Along with “normal” camp activities like swimming, arts and crafts, and sports, bereavement-specific activities encourage children to talk about their grief and are designed to help them learn coping skills that they can bring back home with them once camp is over.

One of their campers, James, 13, arrived at camp after losing his mother in 2010. As he was at the hospital recovering from an asthma attack, his mother, unbeknownst to him, was being admitted to the same hospital after she was found unconscious. She later died at the same hospital where James was recovering a few floors away. While James struggles in school, he thrives at camp each summer, where he is, in a word, popular. 

“His goal is to attend camp every summer until he’s old enough to become a counselor,” says Sara Deren, Experience Camp’s executive director.

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His experience is not surprising, as according to the National Alliance for Grieving Children (NAGC) grieving children feel less alone when they are with other children who have experienced the death of a significant person.

In the coming year, Experience Camps will have over 450 campers at camps in Maine, California, New York and Georgia. Their attendance is growing, and there are some repeat campers, like Jeff*, 15, from Philadelphia, who moved in with his aunt after his father was shot and killed in 2014.

“Jeff struggled with rules and boundaries his first year at camp, and we debated whether camp was a good fit for him, until we learned from his guardian how much he enjoyed it and couldn’t wait to come back,” said Deren.

“His second year showed a lot of growth; he shined in sharing circles, where campers are asked to share their stories and memories of the person who died, and he often encouraged his peers to share more and asked questions to prompt discussion.”

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From there, the teenager who almost wasn’t invited back continued to win a camper of the day award for helping a younger camper with homesickness.

While a week away is an important reprieve, there’s also the matter to returning to “normal” life, and part of helping a child through that transition is providing support not just year-round, but to parents as well.

Good Grief, located in New Jersey, the programming, which takes place after school and on weekends, provides unlimited and free support to children, teens, young adults, and families through support programs intended to reinforce the idea that grief is not a problem to be “fixed,” but “a new reality to learn to live with.”

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Cindy Clark, whose husband died after battling cancer, says that she and her then-five-year-old son Matthew are living a happy and healthy life thanks to the program’s support.

“Meeting on a regular basis with the same group of people going through a loss, I could talk about things that no one else in my life could quite understand,” she said.

Cindy also learned how to better understand which of her son’s behaviors were “normal” for his age, and which words and actions were reflections of him acting out his grief and learning to cope with the loss of his father.

“They suggested giving my son ways to get out his anger by punching a couch pillow while I held it up for him like a punching bag to deal with frustration, and just letting him sit with his sadness, just sitting with him and let him cry, or not, and staying present until he moved onto something else,” she said, adding that Matthew ultimately also became more comfortable articulating what he needed.

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For kids like Matthew, there’s an annual “Day of Remembrance” to celebrate the lives of loved ones that have died, summer “Family Fun Days,” equine (horse) therapy, game nights, family bowling, and ice skating. 

“When kids asked him about his Dad, he would be honest and just say, “I have a Dad, he’s dead,” and he’d continue to play. These were all skills he learned in his peer support group,” she said.

When adults avoid words like “dead” or “die,” or gloss over the truth about how a person died in hopes of protecting their child, they actually don’t realize that in doing so, new problems are created—children must be able to trust the adults in their lives to tell them the truth and answer their questions, or else they’re left to process their confusion and complex feelings on their own.

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Additionally, asserts the NACG, one of the top indicators of how well children will do after the death of a significant person in their life is directly related to the type of relationship they have with the surviving adults in their lives and how well these adults are able to cope with their own grief.

On the advocacy front, the organization proactively reaches out to professionals that interact with grieving children to update them on what the children’s needs are as the present them. In addition, they offer a variety of free educational workshops to schools, corporations, and health organizations throughout New Jersey and nationwide in hopes of changing the way people typically think about young people and grief intervention. 

“The ritual we conduct when a family ‘closes’ at Closing Circle is so important. I did not enjoy them and almost always cried when a family left,” Cindy said. “But the ceremony during closing circle on their last night was so necessary as it gave all of us a chance to say goodbye, which not everyone had with the person they lost.”

*Name has been changed to protect child’s identity

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