It was with great trepidation that I approached the yellow building in front of me on that April afternoon earlier this year. The building resembled a large house but it actually contained an organization that provided support to children who had lost a parent or sibling.
I had responded to a call I’d seen on Volunteermatch for facilitators for a support group for grieving children and had scheduled a tour of the facilities but as the date approached, I was having second thoughts. I wasn’t sure I was equipped to deal with grieving children. How would I possibly know what to say to them? I considered cancelling the tour but reasoned that I could go just to see what it was like and if I didn’t want to do it, I just didn’t have to follow through with the application or training.
The man who greeted me and the other people who had shown up for the tour started by saying that a common misconception people had about the organization was that it was a clinical organization staffed by mental health professionals, when it’s actually a social support organization, with support groups run by volunteers.
We were given fliers that listed statistics about childhood grief and loss. The most staggering statistic was that one in seven children will lose a parent or sibling by age twenty. I had been fortunate enough not to lose a parent or sibling by age twenty but a few years later my luck ran out.
I was as blindsided by the grief that accompanied my stepbrother’s sudden and unexpected death as I was by the death itself. The truth was I had not been close with my stepbrother but I found my mind and my body reacting to his death in ways I couldn’t control. I got shingles, I got pneumonia, I had nightmares and daymares.
Our tour guide showed us the volcano room where children could go to throw balls, to tumble around on the floor, to get out their energy, their anger, their intense emotions. He showed us the hospital room where children could recreate and act out the experiences they’d had with a dying loved one on a hospital bed. He showed us the memory box room where children could put arts and crafts they’d created to signify their person who died in to shoeboxes. He showed us the picture wall that displayed photographs of the loved ones who had died. He showed us the hallway in which all the participants gathered in a circle to pass around a talking stick and say the name of their loved one who died. He showed us the individual rooms where the participants divided by age groups to discuss their losses or engage in expressive arts related to their losses.
By the end of the tour I knew I wanted to be a facilitator. I signed up for the training in August.
In August I and about thirteen other people spent four days essentially learning that everything we’d previously learned about grief, every idea about grief that our culture reinforced, was wrong.
Grief is thought of as something horrible but the organization’s name, Good Grief, reinforces the idea that grief is actually a good thing. It’s a natural reaction to love and loss.
Our society behaves as though there should be a time limit to grief. After a week or a month or a year the person who’s experienced a loss should stop grieving and move on with their life. Good Grief believes that there is no time limit to grief.
Good Grief also believes that the famous Kubler-Ross stages of grief are not universal nor do they proceed in a linear fashion. There’s no need or pressure for anyone to progress smoothly from one stage to the next.
We were taught that as facilitators, it was not our job to judge anyone for their grief reactions or to try to “fix” their grief.
Society urges us not to speak ill of the dead but Good Grief has a saying that “assholes die too”, so there’s no need to always put the deceased on a pedestal.
Many people think that young children have no concept of death and that they do not feel grief. Good Grief teaches us that this is nonsense. Even children who lose a loved one when they are too young to speak or to remember their loved one grieve.
We are taught the art of empathetic listening and the difference between sympathy and empathy. We are asked to create a timeline of our own losses and not just the losses that involve death.
When asked in a follow up survey if I felt I benefited from the training and if I’d recommend it, I do not hesitate to say yes. When asked which age group I’d prefer to work with, I choose the youngest age group Good Grief serves: the three to five- year-olds.
As the children in my group arrive on my first day as a facilitator, it is impressed on me just how young and small they really are. Some children walk in to the room clutching stuffed animals. Others clutch the hand of their surviving parent.
My co-facilitator and I begin the group by asking the children why they’re at Good Grief. Some children loudly and freely volunteer information about their lost loved one. When one boy says that his mother died, he also mentions that his cat died. I know how very real and painful pet loss can be to a child, having experienced pet loss as a child myself.
Other children reply in tiny voices that are barely audible. Then there are the kids who don’t mention their lost loved one at all. One boy says he’s at Good Grief so he can play. His sister says she’s at Good Grief so her brother can be there.
However, when directly asked who in their life died, they all tell us.
I figure that sibling loss is rare, so there will be no kids in my group who lost siblings, but there’s a little girl who lost her brother and a little boy who lost his sister.
Somehow, it hadn’t even occurred to me that there would be children at Good Grief who don’t even remember their lost parent but there’s a little girl in my group who lost her father when she was just one year old. It makes sense that such children would be at Good Grief when you think about it though. Even though those children don’t remember their parent, they feel the absence of that parent in their lives, especially when they compare themselves with their peers.
That’s the gift that Good Grief gives these children-a place where they are not alone and they are not different. A place where they can be around other children who have experienced similar losses.
While children do experience grief, they do not experience it in the same ways that adults do and it would be a mistake to address child grief in the same way we address adult grief. It’s just not realistic to expect a group of three to five- year -olds to sit around a circle for over an hour and discuss their grief in depth, like the adults and teenagers who participate in Good Grief do. Therefore, we address their grief through art, play and stories.
We read a story about a monster that’s in distress because he’s got his feelings all jumbled up. He feels better once he learns to label his different feelings. We have the children make heart keepsakes to remember their loved ones by. We have them draw pictures of their loved ones. And we give them time to play freely and just be kids.
Before each group, the directors of the program give us a plan for activities to do and topics to discuss for the night but my co-facilitator and I know that with small children (and sometimes with adults as well), things don’t always go according to plan, so we try to be flexible and realistic about our expectations.
There are times when the kids are distracted and hyperactive. There are times when they don’t pay much attention to the activity we’ve laid out for them, when they don’t seem willing or able to make the connections to grief and loss.
Yet there are also times when the children surprise us with how much they do understand, with how willing they are to engage with their grief and be vulnerable.
When we did a lesson on emotions and breathing techniques using a variety of different animals as examples, we figured we had totally lost the attention of one little boy. He sat in a corner of the room playing with toys and not making eye contact or responding to any of our prompts. Then when we got to the last animal, the lion, he stood up, puffed out his chest and let out a deafening roar.
When we put jars of snacks on the table with labels for the feelings they were supposed to represent and then scooped out a certain amount to put in to the children’s baggies in accordance to how often they reported experiencing that feeling, I figured the kids would only pay attention to the food and ignore the feelings (I also figured that since fear was represented by raisins, we’d discover we had a lot of very brave children.) But after we’d completed the activity, one girl was so interested in the feelings that she asked a facilitator how often she experienced the labeled feelings and scooped snacks in to a bag for her accordingly.
When reading a book called The Invisible String was on the agenda, we figured connecting the concept of an invisible string to the concept of maintaining connections with a loved one after their death was beyond the capability of these children and tried to brainstorm ways we could explain it to them after we’d finished the book, but after we’d introduced the book and before we’d even started reading, a girl in our group volunteered that you can have invisible connections to people after they’ve died.
Then a boy chimed in with, “You can text people after they’ve died. You can text them from your heart.”
Before we end group each night we perform a closing ritual. We gather the children in a circle, hand each child a small electric candle which they switch on, and we turn off the lights. Then as we go around the circle each child switches off their candle and says goodnight to their person who died.
The boy who always mentions the death of his cat along with the death of his mother, says goodnight to his cat too. One of the girls says “Goodnight, Daddy. I love you. See you when I get up there.”
A few weeks ago in post-group for the facilitators, the leader of the group mentioned that Good Grief had t-shirts for sale, which we were all encouraged to buy. The t-shirts were blue with the word grief written in white lettering at the top. Underneath it was a black equal sign and underneath the equal sign was the word love written upside down in red lettering.
“Does that slogan have any particular meaning?” a facilitator asks.
“Well, what do you guys think?” the group leader replies, opening the question up to everyone.
“Grief equals love turned upside down”, a facilitator sitting across from me articulates.
We come to a general group consensus that the t-shirt is saying that grief stems from love and that when you lose someone you love, the love you feel for them is upended, transformed and mutated in ways that wreak havoc on your life, yet it is still ever present.
As soon as I get home, I go on the Good Grief website and order a t-shirt.
I realize that while it may be awhile before the kids I work with at Good Grief can fully understand all the forms love can take and all the ways it can warm, break and mend your heart, the concept of loving someone is one they seem to intuitively grasp and love is a feeling they genuinely experience, along with their grief. The two are, after all, inseparable.
The book I read about the monster and his jumbled feelings ends by saying that there’s one more feeling that hasn’t been mentioned. I show the children the big, red heart illustrated on the page and ask if they can guess what that feeling is. The children are all smiles as they shout out “Love!”
One of the questions we’re repeatedly told to ask the children is what activities they enjoyed doing with their loved one who died. When I ask the boy who lost his sister what he enjoyed doing with her, he replies softly with words that are unintelligible to me but I hear an L sound and an- er sound.
“You played Leveler with your sister?” I reply uncertainly, thinking that perhaps Leveler is a new video game I haven’t heard of.
“No, I LOVE her,” he corrects me emphatically.
Later that evening that same boy is playing with a toy phone and tells me he’s going to make a call.
I’m about to suggest he call his sister but I stop myself. It is my job to follow the child’s lead in play and facilitate what Good Grief calls their grief work. It is not my job to lead the child or to impose my own ideas or suggestions on them.
“Who are you calling?” I say instead.
“My sister,” he replies.
“What do you want to say to her?” I ask.
“I love you,” he says in to the phone.
These kids seem to intuitively understand that death ends a life, not a relationship. I’m not sure whether they understand that grief is the price you pay for love. While I wish they had not had to experience such tragic losses so early in their lives, I hope that when they do understand that grief is the price you pay for love, they consider it to be a price worth paying.
Last night in post-group, the communications director for Good Grief reminded us all that today is Children’s Grief Awareness day and she requested that we share our stories of the work we do for Good Grief on the internet, to raise awareness.
So that’s what I’m doing.