Nov. 16, 2017 -- Alicia Kelly’s husband, Christopher, died suddenly in March 2016 at the age of 43 from a blood clot, leaving behind Alicia and her two young sons. Although her older son wasn’t showing any signs of grief, the mother of one of her son’s friends introduced her to Kate’s Club, an organization that helps children deal with the loss of a parent or sibling.
For more than a year, Kelly has taken her eldest son, Kieran, 7, to the club in in Atlanta, which helps them develop skills to deal with their grief. Her younger son, Graeham, 3, is not old enough to attend.
“It is important to me that people don’t underestimate the feelings your child has,” Kelly says. “They feel things on a deeper level sometimes, and you can’t assume because they aren’t crying that they aren’t upset and they don’t think about it.”
Kate’s Club is among a growing number of groups dedicated to helping the 2 million children and young adults who have lost a parent:
- Kate Atwood founded the group in 2003 to organize outings and activities for children who’ve experienced loss. Lane Pease, program director at Kate’s Club in Atlanta, says they have expanded to add support groups and therapeutic services. While they are not a clinical organization, they do offer community support. They served about 470 children in the metro Atlanta area in the past year.
- The Dinner Party, a national organization that hosts get-togethers aimed at young adults who have lost a parent, is in 70 cities nationwide and 12 abroad. Lennon Flowers, a co-founder and the executive director, says they have been able to grow their community to about 5,000 people since 2014.
- The National Alliance for Grieving Children, founded in 2004, includes around 900 member organizations. The alliance offers support and training, and it hosts a national symposium each year, says Andy McNiel, former chief executive officer of the group.
- Children’s Grief Awareness Day, commemorated this year on Nov. 16, has grown from a local celebration to an international event since being started in 2008 by Highmark Caring Place in Pennsylvania, says director Terese Vorsheck.
McNiel says it’s important for family members to recognize that kids do grieve.
“Whether they are showing it or not, they are impacted when someone in their life dies, and kids fare better when they are able to be understood by people around them,” McNiel says.
Flowers, of The Dinner Party, says those who experience loss become good at being silent about it.
“You learn pretty quickly how to avoid making other people uncomfortable and ‘Like, oh my god, I am so sorry for making you feel weird about my life, I promise to never ever to do that again,’’’ Flowers says. She says people that have lost a parent often feel as if they live parallel lives as they try to do “normal” things.
Flowers says the organization started in 2010 from a group of people she knew socially who had all lost their parents. They were able to help expand the group after starting a crowdfunding campaign in 2013.
The point of the group is not to fix loss, but to bring people who might be isolating themselves into a community to help them heal and build meaningful relationships, she says.
Creating a Community
Kelly says Kate’s Club has become a big part of their lives and that she can’t imagine them not in her life now.
“It just seemed like the best place to be and the best decision I could’ve made,” Kelly says. “They have really had a significant impact on my older son in coming to terms with his dad’s death, and we’re very open -- we talk about it, which is kind of their philosophy. It’s just a great fit.”
She says her older son enjoys the activities like crafts, going to the zoo, and playing games.
Liz Carson, program and outreach coordinator of Kate’s Club, says weekly “clubhouse days” begin with drop off and a chance to mingle, followed by a welcome circle. The welcome circle provides an opportunity for introductions and for children to talk about who in their family died, she says.
They club also offers four outings a year in each season, plus holiday and other programs related to loss like Mother’s day, Father’s day, and sibling’s day. They also have a family night once a month.
Highmark Caring Place is similar to Kate's Club, with four centers located around Pennsylvania. It provides peer support and programming for children and their families to help cope with loss, Vorsheck says.
The idea for Children’s Grief Awareness Day came after talking to children about what they wanted. Its purpose is to raise awareness of the impact of death on children and their need for support.
“People oftentimes don’t understand that kids who are grieving really need extra support,” Vorsheck says. “We hope to spread the word that it is hard for these kids when somebody close to them dies.”
The days falls before the holidays because this can be a hard time for those experiencing grief since that time is usually filled with family traditions, Vorsheck says.
For people looking for an organization, Donna Schuurman, senior director of advocacy and training, says people should evaluate a group’s website to see:
- Who are the people running the organization?
- How credible is the organization?
- What is the level of education of the staff? Do they have people with master’s degrees or higher?
- What is the organization's philosophy?
- What is the basis of the organization?
Also check out the standards of practice on the National Alliance for Grieving Children’s website.