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Loss of a parent at any age is emotionally the same. People have varying levels of awareness and depth of relationship with the deceased depending on age – for example a six year old will have a different understanding of the finality of death and a shorter time period available to know the deceased loved one than a thirty-six year old would. Generally, kids understand the finality of death when they reach age 8 – 10. Prior to that, kids know the deceased is gone, but they think the deceased wil return in the future. Regardless, the emotional essence of loss is the same.
When working with kids, good grief facilitators know the kids are the experts and the ultimate goal of the session is to provide a safe place for constructive conversation and peer support. To start a session facilitors should engage the kids with a brief interactive activity around a grief related topic. The activity is only limited by the facilitator’s imagination. At Kate’s Club, I’ve seen activities involve hula hoops, fabric strips, flip cams, crayons, flower pots, tree limbs, pillow cases, lentils, board games or just plain old pen and paper. The activity should lead the facilitator to ask a grief related question of the group which generates a healthy discussion among the group participants. A specific question is best for younger kids – did you lose you mom or your dad? Your brother or sister? A more abstract question would be good for teens.
If the kids seem reluctant to share their thoughts, it might be appropriate for the facilitator to briefly share their story of loss. Good facilitators should practice appropriate self-disclosure and remember the session is about the kids’ loss, not their loss. Although it is good for facilitators to have unspoken but concrete goals for the discussion before the group activity, a good facilitator will remain flexible and allow the group discussion to evolve, as long as it stays on topic. Facilitators should be mindful of different styles within the group – some kids process things externally while talking, other kids process internally before talking and may need a minute to ponder before verbally communicating. A good facilitator will allow short periods of time for quiet reflection then reengage the group.
Like most every skill, the more you practice it the better and more comfortable you will be. Be sure to debrief after every session both with the kids and with yourself to determine what worked and what might be improved for the next session.