Grief centers help children cope with loss

10/17/2011

“I don’t want to be the king of my house. I want my dad to come back,” cried Jake, a teary 4-year-old whose father had died recently.

Susan Williams, who was facilitating a grief support group for preschoolers, racked her brain trying to think of how to care for the emotional child. Before she had a chance to speak, another little boy, Will, put his arm around Jake.

“You know, that’s not gonna happen,” Will said. “Your dad’s not gonna come back, but we can help you with things.”

Matt, another 4-year-old, chimed in, and the boys began telling stories about their dads and thinking of ways to remember the good times.

“I’m just sitting there doing nothing,” Williams said, explaining her stunned reaction to the unusually mature response of the children. “That’s how a support group works. It’s the people on the journey who understand better than anyone else and who say the right things.”

Williams, director of Journey of Hope Grief Support Center in Plano, Texas, said this situation is a perfect example of the benefits of grief support groups.

A drawing from Journey of Hope Grief Support Center expresses a grieving teen’s broken heart. Photo courtesy of Journey of Hope.A drawing from Journey of Hope Grief Support Center expresses a grieving teen’s broken heart. Photo courtesy of Journey of Hope.

Journey of Hope is a nonprofit organization housed in First United Methodist Church in Plano. It serves grieving children and young adults, ages 3-18, and their families who have experienced the death of someone “near and dear.”

Rays of Hope, a similar center in Midland, Texas, also offers grief support for children, helping them find constructive ways to express their emotions. Vicki Jay, executive director of Rays of Hope and a Stephen Ministry leader at First United Methodist Church in Midland, said children often are overlooked during a time of loss and need special help in dealing with the situation.

Society not good at helping

The Plano and Midland facilities, while completely unrelated entities, share similar philosophies in addressing children’s grief: Both emphasize the desperate need of families and children who are grieving.

Williams said families need grief support because our society is not good at helping people deal with loss. Families need people who will help them adjust to a new sense of normal. “It’s not just something that time heals,” she said. “It’s something that’s going to be with you forever.”

Williams and Jay said children need extra support during times of loss.

“The first thing you have to recognize is that children grieve,” Jay said. Recalling the words of an expert on the subject, she said, “If you’re old enough to love, you’re old enough to grieve.”

Boys learn that it’s OK to display various emotions in an exercise looking in a mirror and expressing  happy faces. They also showed their angry and silly faces. A UMNS photo by Jess Warnock.Boys learn that it’s OK to display various emotions in an exercise looking in a mirror and expressing happy faces. They also showed their angry and silly faces. A UMNS photo by Jess Warnock.

Jay said times of grief can cause adults to send unintended messages to children. “Often, no matter what our words say, our actions say: ‘Go away. Let us do the adult work of grief.’”

The directors of both the Plano and Midland facilities said one of the most important truths for grieving children is to know they are not alone. Normalizing grief is one of the centers’ key goals.

“There’s a lot of power in knowing you’re not the only one,” Jay said. “Grief is the one thing that isn’t picky. Everybody has grief at some point in life. We want to make it so it’s not such a hard topic.

“It’s OK to laugh, even though your heart is breaking,” she said. “It gives people a way to look at grief, not as a bad thing, but as a normal part of life.”

Williams said being in a support group allows the kids to see other people who have experienced loss, hear their stories and watch how they cope.

“Those feelings that come and go get validated and are recognized,” Williams said. “Part of our big job is to normalize those emotions and then give them coping skills.”

Teaching ways to express grief

The two centers focus on teaching children appropriate ways to express their grief.

“When we get people with big emotions, we don’t want to stop those emotions,” Williams said, contrasting the attitudes of society and a support group. “We want those emotions to come out.”

“Grief is an internal response to an external event,” Jay said. “We have to help the kids find appropriate ways to let that out.”

“Don’t miss the opportunities to teach about life and death,” Jay said. “We do everything we can to plan for and prepare for birth, but we don’t do so good on the other end.”

Both centers recognize the need for a neutral party to be involved in the grief support process.

Williams said a neutral individual is especially important when adults in the family don’t know what to do. “Sometimes, parents don’t know how to help themselves, much less help their child.”

Jay agreed, explaining that adults in the family aren’t always the best place for kids to look for support since the adults are struggling with their own grief. “To be able to come to a neutral place and ask questions and talk about it and be supported is healing in itself,” Jay said. “We’re giving them permission to talk about it.”

Jay said kids who learn to deal with grief appropriately become better members of society. “If you support a child through a normal thing (like grief) in a healthy way, then you end up with healthier adults.”

The methods for the two centers differ slightly, but both recognize the ministry aspect of their work.

Williams said First United Methodist Church in Plano looks at Journey of Hope as one of its missions and thus provides critical support for the organization. “They very much have a heart for what we do,” Williams said, “and they provide many things that we don’t pay for. They are so kind to our program because they recognize we are needed.”

Jay said grief support begins with a heart for ministry. “I think it starts in the heart of churches and hospices with the heart of ministry and serving,” Jay said.

Jay said many of the volunteers at Rays of Hope work for that very reason. “People do it from their heart and their love for God.”

*Snell is a United Methodist Communications intern and a senior at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Maggie Hillery, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Want to start a grief program?

  • First, recognize that children grieve
  • Find “a champion, someone who will take the lead role, stir the pot and put energy in the effort"
  • Assess who is willing to step up and what kind of ministries are already in place
  • Learn how children grieve and what they need by gathering resources locally or from national organizations such as: National Alliance for Grieving Children, local hospices and the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization
  • Determine what the program should look like. “Then sit back and follow the lead of children.”

How to respond to a grieving child:

  • Give children permission to have feelings; let them know it’s OK to be sad
  • Give them personal time to express and ask questions
  • Don’t be afraid to show your emotions
  • Tell the truth, but remember: you don’t have to tell all the truth – say what is developmentally appropriate for the child.