Thursday, January 3, 2002

Jennifer Ching lit candles Friday in remembrance of her father. "I find it comforting to know that other kids have gone through what I'm going through," said Ching, whose father died two years ago. Looking on was Cynthia White, program development director for Outreach for Grieving Youth Alliance.

Beyond grief

The Outreach for Grieving Youth
Alliance helps kids to express the
pain of their loss and to move
toward a constructive resolution

By Scott Vogel

No one likes to think that our children -- the most vulnerable among us -- will ever have to bear the loss of a loved one. But after Sept. 11, when, according to estimates, at least 2,800 children lost a parent when the World Trade Center towers collapsed, the subject became unavoidable. Still, when the unthinkable happens, there is help to be had, thanks to a new program called the Outreach for Grieving Youth Alliance, which began serving Hawaii's families for the first time this past October. Spend some time with grief-stricken kids, says Jennifer Ching, 16, and you'll immediately detect vast generational differences in the way children and adults respond to loss.

"I notice that, especially in young children, they basically show their grief through behavior," explains Ching, a youth advisory board member to OGYA whose own father died suddenly two years ago. "They don't necessarily talk. Some children will be very verbal, but it's more the adults and the teens. While the teens will go off and talk about their losses, the younger kids will draw and play."

Which is not to suggest that children's responses are in any way wrong or even unsophisticated. Rather, as Cynthia White, OGYA's program development director, points out, there's an ingenuity to this kind of play that can be tremendously therapeutic. Having spent years at the Dougy Center -- the Portland-based nonprofit that was one of the first organizations dedicated to grieving children -- she's learned to watch closely and listen carefully while kids play.

For more information

For further information on participating in OGYA or becoming a volunteer, call Cynthia White at 735-2989 or visit the Web site at White can also be reached via e-mail at Tax-deductible contributions can be sent to OGYA, P.O. Box 11260, Honolulu, HI 96828.

"This little guy would come in, and all he wanted to do for his 45 minutes of play was put together a train track," she remembers. "And he got really good at it because he did this for months and months, over and over again. He made the track longer and longer as he got better at it. Eventually we had an activity where we invited the children to share the last memory they had of being with the person who had died. This guy, who was 5 years old, shared that the last time he was with his mom, they went for a walk on the train tracks. And that was something they did regularly. They would go for a walk after dinner; she would tuck him in. And that particular night she had a heart attack."

Another boy only wanted to play with the center's tea set, methodically filling each cup with water until it overflowed onto the floor. "And he did this over and over again, until one day when he was able to fill the cups without the water spilling out," at which point the ritual ended. "This child had taken his baby sister and put her in the bathtub to give her a bath, left her in the bathtub and she had drowned." The play activity was a symbolic attempt at gaining control over water and its potential treachery.

Control is something we all struggle to obtain; understandably, control is doubly difficult for a grieving child, whose entire world is suddenly out of control. Fantasies abound, needless to say, and once again play-acting can prove healthful.

"Kids aren't upset in the same way that adults are upset," White says. "What they do is take on the roles. So if they're upset with the doctor, then they become the doctor and they do it the 'right way.' And you as a volunteer would play the patient. And they often will cure you. Or they won't! But they'll let you know. Or they'll become a monster, a powerful figure or a superhero. They'll do things to experience some sense of mastery that won't leave them feeling powerless."

At present, OGYA meets twice a month with sessions lasting for two hours. (Until OGYA raises the money to have its own building, participants congregate at various facilities, including the Queen Liliuokalani Children's Center in Kalihi.) Each meeting begins with what's called a Name Circle, in which the children -- ranging in age from 3 to 19 -- state their name, the name of the loved one who died and the circumstances of the death. As White would put it, this is a way of "inviting grief in," of evoking "the energy of grief" via a peer support structure.

"We think of grief as an energy in the body, as a potential. It is natural, it's healthy and it's vital." But it also must be released, which is why OGYA has set up what is known as a Volcano Room, complete with punching bags, large stuffed animals and soon, pending donations, a 6-foot-tall plush doll for the children to wrestle with.

"You get those 3-year-olds in there, and they can pick this guy up and body-slam him," says White. "I can probably, maybe drag him. But when you get the energy of grief moving, you have more power in your body than you can imagine." Adults like Hiro Ito, 34, supervise and direct the play when necessary; Ito lost his mother at the tender age of 3.

"Some of the girls are just as physical as the boys," he laughs, confessing that he has had to dodge many a thrown stuffed animal in his day.

After the mayhem the children are brought back together as a group, where they talk about playtime. Then, just before the close of the evening, there's a candle lighting ceremony in which three tapers are lit by the children. One is for the group and the losses they have shared; a second is for Hawaii and the losses it has suffered.

"And a third candle is for the world," says Ching, demonstrating the ritual with a steady hand on the match, her solemn tone reminding us that grief is a global affair, and one that knows no age limit, its victims ranging from under a month to over a hundred years. Which is another way of saying that there is a great deal of potential energy to be released out there, if only the suffering children can be brought together to congregate.

"Personally, I find it comforting to know that other kids have gone through what I'm going through," smiles Ching. "There were times in the beginning when I felt really alone, like I was the only person in the whole world who was going through this. There's just this common bond that's comforting."

E-mail to City Desk

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]

© 2002 Honolulu Star-Bulletin