At the Heart of our Program
As groups at The Dougy Center come to a close for the summer, we’d like to extend an enormous “Thank you!” to all of the volunteers who helped create safe places for children, teens, young adults, and their family members who are grieving a death. Since October, 2013, we’ve trained and placed 60 additional volunteer facilitators in our peer support groups. These new volunteers brought our total number of facilitators to 190! With the generous gifts of their time and energy, we are able to serve over 450 children and their 300 adult family members.
The Legacy of Questions
In a recent group for children ages 6-12 who have had a parent die, we asked, “What questions do you have about how the person died?”
The answers ranged from philosophic wonderings about the nature of death—(“Why did this have to happen to me and not someone else?”)—to confusion about concrete details – (“I know my dad had cancer, but what exactly killed him? Was it the treatment or something wrong with his liver?”) While sadness, anger, and anxiety are the emotions most commonly associated with grief, confusion and disbelief can be equally present for grievers of all ages. The questions that arise, moments and years after a death, vary greatly and often change over time. Some children want to know about the character and characteristics of the person who died. They have questions about dad’s favorite Thanksgiving food, mom’s friends growing up, their brother’s behavior as a baby, or sister’s dream vacation.
Easing Difficult Memories
“My dad loved going to Oaks Park and riding the roller coaster with me.” “Steve and I met during our Freshman year at college.” “Carla, my youngest sister, always tried to steal my Halloween candy.” Memories are what those who are grieving have left. Many of these memories come with laughter and sometimes tears of joy as children, teens, and adults recall times spent together. Other memories though can bring great sadness, regret, and intense physical responses. New research from the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois offers a way for people to help dispel the emotional charge of their worst memories. Researchers at the Institute found that when remembering difficult memories, people tend to focus on the negative emotions they experienced (sadness, embarrassment, fear, etc). They discovered that by simply turning the focus away from the emotions and putting it instead into remembering the contextual details such as the weather, what they were wearing, and who was with them, people were able to turn down the volume on the intensity of the negative emotions associated with the memory. This tactic offers an alternative to suppression and reappraisal, the two ways that people often try to deal with challenging memories. Suppression means pushing the thoughts and emotions away while reappraisal encourages people to look for the “silver lining” in a situation, a strategy that demands a lot of mental energy that most grieving people find to be in short supply.
How We Remember
Memorial Day is often associated with camping weekends at the beach, BBQ’s, and high school marching bands. Originally called Decoration Day, it was first officially observed on May 30, 1868, three years after the Civil War ended, when at the conclusion of President James Garfield’s speech, 5,000 observers placed flowers on the graves of both union and confederate soldiers in Arlington National Cemetery. While Memorial Day focuses specifically on honoring those who died while in the Armed Services, for some grieving families it can be a time to honor and remember anyone in their lives who has died. Many grieving children and adults worry they will forget so much about the person who died. They fear not being able to recall the sound of their grandfather’s voice, the smell of their mother’s hair, or the way their little brother’s laugh echoed around the living room. Many of the activities and questions we share with the children in our program focus on helping them to hold onto the memories they have. A favorite one for us to do in the late spring when the rains recede is to gather outside and ask children to bring to mind a memory of something they used to do with the person during the summer. One at a time they can blow a bubble into the sky and say their memory out loud (or not). For many children, especially those who were very young when the person died, they don’t have many personal memories, so they rely on family and friends to tell them stories and share photos. They particularly love stories about them and the person who died such as the day they were born or things they did with the person on special occasions. Children also like stories about the person’s day to day life: what foods did they like/dislike, how did they like to dress, who were their best friends, what kind of job they had and how they decided to work there…etc.