So No Child Will Have to Grieve Alone
by Donald Gilpin
photographs courtesy of Good Grief
In a discussion room of the Good Grief Princeton headquarters on Mapleton Avenue, a group of 10-12-year-olds, all living through the recent death of a family member, is getting excited about answering questions from the question jar.
“What would you change about the funeral?” one of the questions reads. “There wasn’t any cake,” one girl chimes in. Words of support arise quickly from the rest of the group. “Yeah, there should have been cake at the funeral.”
Next question: “Do you ever dream about the person who died?” An eleven-year-old responds, “My mom had this beat-up old van and she loved it. And dad sold it after she died.” In the dream the child’s mother came back and was angry and was asking where the van was, and, in the child’s words, “it really sucked that she was mad, but it was really nice to see her.”
The discussion could have ended there, but a facilitator, a volunteer trained by Good Grief professionals-36 hours of training in four days-asks, “What did it feel like to wake up?”
“I felt angry,” the boy replies, and every other child in the room nods in understanding, acknowledgement, empathy.
“They felt angry that they lost someone that they loved,” explains Malena Attar, development coordinator of Good Grief and also a facilitator on Nights of Support at Good Grief. “That’s an emotion that even adults don’t realize they can have when experiencing loss. But because this child shared his story and a facilitator asked a question, these children can now understand that loss is a part of life and it’s ok to feel angry. And they talked about how they can deal with their anger in healthy ways.”
Good Grief and its Nights of Support “are really about kids sharing their experiences and learning how to deal with those experiences,” Ms. Attar explains. “That really is at the heart of what we do.”
One in seven children will lose a parent or sibling before the age of 20. In New Jersey alone in the coming year, approximately 20,000 children will be left to grieve this loss. Children who do not get support are at-risk and vulnerable, and studies show that peer support programs are highly effective. Good Grief works to provide all grieving children in Princeton and surrounding communities with the free grief support they need. Funded by private donors, corporations and foundations, the Good Grief programs are free to grieving families for as long as they choose to stay, usually about three years.
Joe Primo, CEO of Good Grief, explains, “A child at heightened stress levels is in a perpetual state of anxiety which can lead to diabetes, heart disease or depression, which may not take a visible immediate toll, but it leads to lower life expectancy because of the risk factor brought to bear by toxic stress.”
“We work to make the stress more tolerable,” Mr. Primo, an ordained minister, continues. “It’s preventative work through the power of human connections and the impact that these relationships have. It’s the supportive power of a peer, who is walking down the same path as you, who might think your thoughts, feel your feelings.”
This peer relationship model seeks to strengthen the family in order to help children to become more resilient and to help them to eventually be able to live more meaningful and productive lives as they re-enter the world with a higher level of empathy and emotional intelligence and the ability to depend on their inner state.
“Grief is often not something that requires treatment,” Mr. Primo says. “It does require psycho-social support.”
“There are losses no family expects to face,” Good Grief’s introductory brochure states. “After the death of a parent or sibling, it can be hard to find a way forward. No matter how someone died, Good Grief provides a community that understands the journey towards finding a ‘new normal.’
“Good Grief is a safe place for a grieving family to remember, share experiences, and know they are not alone. Our programs offer peer support, not counseling or therapy.”
Nights of Support, twice monthly for most grieving children and their families, start with a pizza dinner in the center’s café area. The opening circle, one of the most important activities, follows dinner. One at a time the children standing in a circle say their names and who they’ve lost. “It really normalizes the conversation around death,” Ms. Attar says. “In our culture there’s a stigma attached to talking about loss. People avoid dealing with it. Kids sometimes feel they have to suppress that memory and that feeling. When kids and family are in a room together talking, it normalizes that conversation. So having an opening circle allows them to state a fact and to take away the weight of that reality.”
After the opening circle, the children and parents divide up into different age groups: 3-5, 6-9, 10-12, teens, young adults (up to age 30) and parents. The Mapleton headquarters provides a rich carefully designed environment for many different activities. There’s a teen room with a pool table and game center, but for teens, Ms. Attar says, “a lot of it is just having conversations-‘What’s scary for you?’ ‘What do you worry about?’ ‘Let’s talk about it.’ It’s like when you’re little you think there’s a monster under your bed and when you turn the light on you see it’s just a pile of clothes-much less scary when you talk about it, bring it to light.”
The 3-5-year-olds’ room is called “Enchanted Forest,” with beautiful sylvan murals. There’s an arts and crafts room, a splatter room (where aspiring Jackson Pollocks can let loose with the paint brush), “interactive” walls to write on or post memories or pictures, a letter writing desk and mail boxes for letters to lost family members, a play theater, a large sand tray, musical instruments, a play hospital room with a real hospital bed, an adult group discussion room, and a communal discussion room, a blue lounge, a tree house room for 10-12-year-olds, and a colorfully painted volcano room with padded mats on floor and ceiling-a safe space for kids to physically let loose with nothing breakable and nothing that can cause injury.
Program directors plan activities and discussion for facilitators for each session, and the facilitators ask questions, keep the conversation going and “make sure the space is safe,” according to Ms. Attar. “This is a very loud place on Nights of Support,” says Mr. Primo.
Ms. Attar adds that on Nights of Support “you see humanity at its best. Teens-the stereotype is selfishness, but I’ve never seen a more empathic group in my life. You see somebody else who is hurting and it doesn’t matter what their religion is, what their background is, you are just there as a human being. They’re really united by this universal experience of loss. It doesn’t have to be scary. It doesn’t have to be negative. It just is, and we’re there for each other.”
Eighteen-year-old Mackenzie wrote down some of his thoughts about his father’s death and the process of mourning, “Grief is what can tear a person apart. I’ve experienced grief first hand. My father loved summer days filled with the smell of BBQ. He was the biggest guy to head over to the grill, spatula in hand and stay outdoors all day. My mother, sisters and I are not the same people we once were. We have all been through a lot after my father was taken from us. When he passed away, days like those became our gloomiest. We weren’t able to be filled with the joy many thought we should have been.”
Mackenzie’s family participated in Nights of Support and other programs at Good Grief. “Good Grief has allowed us to open our minds to a different way of thinking,” he says. “Hearing stories from people in our age groups that have encountered similar situations eased how we felt about our own loss. We don’t have to feel alone anymore because Good Grief has made it apparent that we aren’t alone.
“We can talk about those hot summer days and how we would love to smile but can’t find the strength to. The feedback we receive from others helps to build that strength. If they are able to smile on days like that, we can too!”
Mr. Primo describes Good Grief as “a doorway to hope. Loss touches everybody. We all know someone who has faced tragedy. Even when children are at their rock bottom, there is a place where hope dwells, and that place is here in this big yellow house.” The large yellow Mapleton Avenue Princeton headquarters of Good Grief currently serves more than 160 grieving children and their parents.
Founded in 2004 in Summit, New Jersey, Good Grief grew rapidly and in 2009 moved to Morristown. Three years later, as the number of participating children and families continued to grow, with many families traveling over an hour from the central part of New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania to attend sessions each week, the Morristown base was no longer adequate.
Mercer and Middlesex, respectively, are the New Jersey counties with the second and third highest numbers of grieving children in the state. In response to the growing need in central Jersey, Good Grief opened its Princeton branch in 2012, renting space from Trinity Church and Princeton AlumniCorps to serve about 30 families, and the demand continued to increase. Last July Good Grief happily moved into its Mapleton Avenue home, and invited the community to a festive ribbon-cutting ceremony two months later.
There are now three Nights of Support each week, with a total of about 60 families involved plus a waiting list. “The last thing you want to do is put these families on a waiting list,” Ms. Attar explained. “Grief doesn’t wait. We need to expand.”
Good Grief is currently in the process of raising $100,000 to fund a fourth weekly Night of Support and hoping to raise an additional $2 million to purchase the Mapleton Avenue house and make it their permanent home.
Programs at the Princeton headquarters currently serve 29 communities within 20 miles, with plans to reach out to grieving children within a 40-mile radius in the future. Good Grief also provides workshops, training and educational programs for schools and community organizations.
“In the face of loss and tragedy, there are always well intentioned people who do not know how to react or behave,” explains Mr. Primo, who studied end-of-life ethics and counseling at Yale Divinity School and served as a hospice chaplain before coming to Good Grief. “In the workplace, human resources officials may be unsure what to do about the tragedy. Schools are often unsure how to provide support for the students. The well intentioned approach tends to be off-target. It is our mission to transform each community’s understanding of what childhood bereavement is and how to respond.”
In its ongoing work, Good Grief’s Campaign for Hope fund-raising goal is an ambitious $4 million, with half of that planned for purchasing the Princeton center on Mapleton Avenue and the other half to create an endowment for program and education expansion.
In the coming decade, Mr. Primo hopes to see Good Grief adding three more centers to provide greater accessibility for children and families throughout New Jersey. “We have expanded over and over again,” he said, “so that no child has to grieve alone.”