For a child, the unresolved death of a parent or sibling can result in a painful life sentence of grief, unhappiness and much worse.
Sometimes referred to as “forgotten mourners,” in the past kids who lost a close relative were often “shielded” from the reality of death, sometimes causing even greater problems later in life, including mental health issues.
Five years ago through the Penticton and District Hospice Society, counsellor Susan Kast, who specializes in child and youth grief therapy, began using a monthly bereavement program to help those kids. At the time it was believed to be the only service of its kind in the South Okanagan.
However, when she left the position the program ended and in the coming months, she became increasingly aware of the need for continuing those services.
|Counsellor Susan Kast at the Ikeda Japanese Garden where her child and youth grief program group now spends part of its monthly meeting. (Mark Brett – Western News)
With the help of people like Diana Stirling, who herself lost a brother at a young age, Kast started her group sessions to provide ongoing support for kids going through that difficult time.
But continuing that program is an ongoing challenge, especially financially, as they need $11,000 annually.
“Our goal is to continue to offer support to kids in the community. We made the commitment that we’re going to do that, as to how we’re going to do that — those are details we’re going to have to figure out,” said Kast. “I was hearing directly from the kids who had been coming that they wanted that group to continue and it cemented that commitment that I wanted to see this continue in the community.
“It’s not a terribly big program but it is terribly important that kids get this kind of support.”
Numbers generally range around a dozen young people, some new to the group and others who have been attending for a while.
Particularly troubling to Kast is that in that past few years she has seen a dramatic increase in children who have lost a close family member through suicide or overdose, complicating an already difficult situation.
“Kids will say the same painful things that adults do, ‘If only I’d known if only I could have done something,’” said Kast. “It’s their mom, it’s their sister, it’s their brother, it’s their dad. That loss is painful no matter how the manner of death, but when it is a suicide or an overdose it is more emotionally complex.”
|Children in the grief support group made these dragonflies in memory of passed loved ones during a year-end celebration at LocoLanding Adventure Park last June. (Submitted photo)|
The one single most important thing about the program she provides is kids coming together with kids who are going through the same thing. “When kids have had a loss, the loss of a parent or sibling, they feel like it’s something that makes them different from other kids,” said Kast.
“Meeting other kids who have had losses and that sense of being able to meet and connect with them realizing that they’re just like them. They’re just regular kids. It brings that sense of normalcy and understanding that’s really healing in itself and that’s pretty amazing to see happen.
“What I hear from kids over and over again is that: ‘I just want to be treated the same.’ It’s hard to go back to school and pretend things are normal but they also don’t want to be treated differently so it’s a very delicate balance to meet those needs.”
How Kast helps is to give the kids space and understanding they need to work through their emotions. Because not all grief is expressed in words she finds creative avenues of expression such as art or just playing together is an effective tool.
“While it may just look like playing or drawing often done in memory of the person they lost,” she said. “It’s remembering the person in both happy and loving ways but at the same time holding that sense of loss and sadness for what they miss in their life.”
Many of the members of the group come back year after year and for Kast, the real reward are the smiles on the faces she has come to know.
The program will start again in October at the Penticton Art Gallery, which is providing the space at a reduced rate.
Other community supporters for the program along with Diana Stirling, owner of LocoLanding Adventure Park, which hosts a fun day for the children and their families each year, include Boston Pizza and Bethel Church Penticton.
“I always make a point of telling the kids because I know it really touches them to know there are people in the community that do care for them,” said Kast. “That support for grieving children just really shows me there is so much heart in the community.”
For anyone who would like more information about the program or to help Kast can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.