Children look to adults for direction on every aspect of life, including what to do when the life of someone they love ends. Where can they turn for help dealing with death when their parents and caregivers are also grieving?
Social worker and bereavement therapist Frannie Gaeta has a resource for these children in Carilion Clinic Hospice’s support group Soul Survivors. While everyone grieves differently, children in general grieve differently than adults. In Soul Survivors, these children work with psychologists, therapists and volunteers to process grief in a group setting.
Parents and guardians bring the children to Soul Survivors. Parents and guardians learn how to help the child, but the support group focuses on supporting grieving children. They share memories, explore feelings and remember their loved ones, but there’s also an element of play through crafts, coloring and journals.
Children struggle to process grief, and unlike adults they will set strong feelings aside to take a break through play or focus on school, and come back to the grief in spurts.
“Adults can stay in their grief and be more focused on it. That key word is ‘can.’ They don’t always,” Gaeta said. “Children come in and out … ‘I’m sad and crying and having a grief burst because my mom or dad died, but within 30 minutes I’m a 13-year-old girl talking with a friend about weekend plans to go shopping.’ Parents are looking at it from their perspective. ‘I’m sad since she died and the last thing on my mind is to go to the mall.’ ”
This can lead adults to conclude that children are OK and perhaps they don’t truly grieve, Gaeta continued. But they do. They may not know how to attach words to feelings and may not even know that what they’re feeling is normal. Soul Survivors aims to help with the process.
“Children don’t know how to maneuver through a death,” she said. “A lot of them have experienced a grandparent or pet dying, but grandpa is different — because he was 91 years old, and people die when they get old — than dad dying at age 32 or a friend dying or someone dying from a suicide.”
Soul Survivors began in 2016 when Carilion’s bereavement camp, Camp Treehouse, kept dropping in attendance after a 19-year run. Gaeta, whose own father died from a heart attack when she was 7, asked to use the camp funding to begin a support group, receiving some help from a nonprofit foundation.
The support group’s meeting schedule has changed slightly since 2016, now running weekly for eight-week stints, twice per year in March-April and again in September-October. The first group had about eight families, most of them for children whose neighbor and classmate died in a house fire in Roanoke County.
Now the groups run at about 45 people, which includes health care professionals and volunteers who once brought their own children to Soul Survivors. Soul Survivors meets at Roanoke’s Jefferson College of Health Sciences, beginning with a meal at 6 p.m. The children then split off into groups of Kindergarten through second grade, third to fifth grade, middle school and high school. Gaeta hopes to offer a fourth group for ages 18 to 25 at some point.
While the children are off in their groups, therapists work with parents who are struggling to process their own grief, perhaps keep a household going without a spouse and still support their children. The youngest children may experience regressions such as bed-wetting, while older children might get clingy and secretly fearful that if one parent died, the other could.
“We ask the parents, ‘Do you know how your child is doing?’ ” Gaeta said. “They’re in their own grief and don’t always know.” Parents will sometimes report that the children seem fine — they’re still making good grades — but the parents are trying to cope themselves.
“I always tell parents, ‘Your children will do as well as you are doing,’ ” Gaeta said. “If you are doing well and talking to your children and you are educating them, then your children are going to do well in spite of this horrible tragedy … Teach them hope and gratitude and that where there is hope, there is gratitude.”
Gaeta said she notices that among the group members, many struggle to find gratitude for the way a loved one died. For instance, if someone’s spouse has died of cancer, she may be thankful that it wasn’t from a suicide or homicide.
Others find support in common ground, she added. This spring, Gaeta said, all five of the K-2 participants were boys who lost an uncle.
“What a common thread for them and how healing,” she added. She’s seen fewer children come through traditional hospice channels such as losing a loved one to illness and more who’ve lost someone to suicide.
The groups are clinical in nature and facilitators are trained to help children through those trauma-based losses such as suicide, homicide and overdose, Gaeta said. They’re led by clinical psychologists, social workers, Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital fellows and psychiatry residents. Each group has two facilitators.
Gaeta said she’s thankful for Jefferson College providing the space and for all the residents, private clinicians, and volunteers who work with the group. Carilion Clinic Hospice managers Sharon Parker and Lisa Sprinkel have lent great support as well, she added.
John M. Oakey & Son Funeral Home in Salem has helped, as has Oakey’s Funeral Service, with both food and volunteers. She’s also had a host of former group members come back to pay it forward after bringing their own children to Soul Survivors.
Her biggest challenge these days is finding funding for the group meals, and she welcomes sponsoring organizations.
Those wanting to register a child or volunteer to help may call 1-800-422-8482.