Grief is something that affects everyone of every age. But the way a child or teen reacts to a loss can be much different than what you might expect from an adult.
At Centrica Care Navigators, we’re proud to say we offer grief support programs designed specifically for children, helping them move through their grief and discuss it in developmentally appropriate ways. It’s a service that goes above and beyond the basics of care.
Grief support programs for young people at Centrica Care Navigators aren’t about formal therapy, the “sit in a circle and talk for an hour” kind of meeting the word “therapy” might bring to mind. For many people, and especially for children and teens, grief support is about building safe and trusting relationships in order to express and normalize feelings.
Everyone’s experience with grief is different, and there’s no “ordinary” kind of grief – some people may be sad and cry, others seem unaffected and say very little, still others are deeply depressed or filled with anger, and there are hundreds of other kinds of reactions, too.
Children may experience all those feelings, but they’re often able to put them aside for a while and concentrate on something else, like playing or spending time with family. That doesn’t mean they’re not grieving.
“Sometimes people have a notion that children are resilient and they’ll be just fine. Yes, they may roll with the punches, but they do grieve and need support,” says Rita Mitchell, a grief support counselor at Centrica Care Navigators and coordinator of our Journeys program for children and teens. “Children normally grieve a little at a time; it’s more compartmentalized.”
Journeys for everyone
Journeys, which is open for children and teens age 5 to 18, helps them find ways to express their emotions in a safe, welcoming environment. Participants meet twice a month throughout the year. They stay in the program as long as it’s helpful to them.
During an online or evening in-person session, there are developmentally appropriate activities to try in groups with others of around the same age. Many are creative, like drawing and writing.
“Not everyone is comfortable talking,” Mitchell says. “(Art) helps them with expression.”
The Journeys program is open to everyone, not just families who have received hospice care from Centrica Care Navigators. While children and teens are participating in their peer groups, parents and other caregivers are learning what they can do to help with the grieving process in their own children.
“We spend some time talking about the topic for the evening and what the children are working on, and we also offer support for issues they may be noticing at home with their child’s grief,” Mitchell says. “We encourage them to ask their children what they did during the group session, just like with school.”
Attending Grief 101
When children don’t have the opportunity to meet for grief support outside of school hours, Centrica Care Navigators offers them Grief 101 sessions with counselor Cate Jarvis. Grief 101 is held during the school day for 8-week-long sessions several times in the school year.
Small groups of 4 to 8 elementary school students meet, while the groups for middle school and high school students are about 7 to 12 people.
Jarvis has been running the program for the past 15 years and says, “through a collaboration with Communities in Schools in Kalamazoo and Battle Creek Public Schools, and also with Portage Public Schools Engagement Specialists, schools reach out to when there is an identified need for Grief 101.”
While some Grief 101 participants are dealing with the death of a family member, others have experienced a parental separation like being in foster care or having a parent in prison.
Books, art, and emotions
A Grief 101 session lasts about the length of a class, and like Journeys, it’s often busy with books, activities, creating art, and talking about emotions.
Jarvis gave author C.S. Lewis’ quote, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,” as an example. Students were asked to replace the word “fear” with something that seemed right to them. High school-age participants often appreciate the chance to reflect on their feelings and come to a better understanding of their grief.
“I had a 17-year-old say, ‘This is the first time I’ve been able to talk about my cousin outside the family without crying,’” Jarvis says.
Elementary school-age children often spend their Grief 101 time with books and games and peers of around the same age. The idea, Jarvis says, is to help young people normalize their feelings and make connections to other people.
“Kids need to be doing something like drawing, creating, or playing to process their grief,” she says. “I want them to have fun, to be excited about coming to the group.”
Life in a pandemic
Like so many other things, the Journeys program had to make big changes during the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 and 2021. The program went entirely virtual; participants could still meet and talk, just not in person.
Grief 101 also changed, as many school districts were partially, if not completely, at home for the year.
As pandemic restrictions are loosened, our grief support programs are returning to in-person sessions. Jarvis and Mitchell say that’s probably the most successful way to connect with children and teens. Many may be facing even more challenging emotions as a result of living in a pandemic.
“No matter what age they are, if they’re old enough to love, they’re old enough to grieve,” Mitchell says.
Registration is required for the Journeys program. You can find out more about Journeys and Grief 101 by calling 269.345.0273.
Our Mission is to guide and support individuals and their caregivers coping with illness, aging, dying, and loss by providing compassionate medical, emotional, spiritual, and personal care.