The experience of grieving can be isolating at any age. Just ask Trista Kasul, a sixth-grader at Kelloggsville Middle School. Trista lost her grandfather when she was very young — preschool aged — but the loss weighed heavily on her. They had a special bond: She spent a lot of time with him when he was alive, and has spent a lot of time thinking about him since he died.
“I was more close to him than basically anyone else,” Trista said. “I am very proud of him. He was in the army and he fought for all of us.”
She grappled with sadness as a result of the loss, but Trista felt awkward sharing her feelings — until now.
Trista is one of eight students at Kelloggsville Middle School who recently completed a grief support program led by Ele’s Place, a healing center that brings grieving children and teens together. Through the hour-long sessions, which are held at schools over eight weeks, Trista found camaraderie with other group members, all of whom have lost someone.
The group has an important rule: What individuals share there, stays there, making it a safe space for discussion.
“It made me more comfortable talking about stuff like that,” Trista said. “Now, I have more people to talk to. I learned that you don’t have to be afraid to express your feelings. You can go to a friend, a parent, a teacher.”
No Child Should Grieve Alone
Ele’s Place, founded in Lansing in 1991, offers support groups for bereaved children and teens from ages 3 to 18 at its offices. The nonprofit has been in Grand Rapids since 2013 and launched its at-school programs during the 2015-2016 school year, with five schools participating. This year, there are 15 at-school groups, including schools in Kelloggsville, Thornapple-Kellogg, Cedar Springs, and Kentwood, to name a few.
“Our vision is that no child grieve alone,” said Julie De Jong, program director for the Grand Rapids location of Ele’s Place. “Being able to meet kids exactly where they’re at — at school — can be really powerful for them.”
Michelle Barrows, a counselor at Kelloggsville Middle School, brought the grief support program to the school after recognizing that several students had endured significant losses. Ele’s Place provides a student survey to allow students to self-identify when they are experiencing grief as a result of losing someone.
You’re eligible for the group no matter the type of loss, said De Jong, “As long as it’s the death of someone that you have a relationship with.”
De Jong said that many children experience grief but often it goes unnoticed. Going into schools is a way to support some of those students who might fly under the radar, she said.
Peer to Peer
The school groups are geared toward students in fourth through 12th grade and follow a peer support group model, facilitated by licensed counselors and social workers.
Amy Van Dorp, a licensed social worker, has facilitated at-school programs for Ele’s Place for three years.
“Each of the eight weeks, we have a theme,” she said. “The activities help kids understand grief, connect with each other, and learn ways to cope.”
Van Dorp said students who have participated in the groups have said they no longer feel like they are alone in their grief, they can talk more about their person who died, and that they have new ways to deal with the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that come with grief.
Barrows sat in on and participated with students in the group, facilitated by Van Dorp and co-facilitator Debra Roden. At the end of the session, she said, students were asked to describe in one word how they felt about their grief journey.
“I heard words like ‘peace’ and ‘calm,’” said Barrows.
It’s not only students noticing the value of peer grief support, said De Jong.
“Teachers are really seeing the benefit in us working with these children right now, while they’re being impacted by this grief,” she said. “Further along the line, they can be better academically, socially, and emotionally. Grief touches all areas of our life, and teachers definitely see the impact of this program for those kids.”