The grief so overwhelmed him that he was physically ill every day.
He was just a boy, only in elementary school, and the loss of his mother seemed like more than he could bear.
He couldn’t keep food down, and doctors and family members became so concerned about his health they thought they may have to hospitalize him.
“He wouldn’t talk about his experience – what had happened with his mom – and it was making him so ill physically to keep all of these feelings inside that he was getting to a point that things were really very serious for him,” said Amy Benner LaBelle, grants and events director, Annie’s Hope – The Bereavement Center for Kids.
“We went in right away and started a small group with kids that were close to his age who had had a parent who died,” LaBelle said.
The boy didn’t open up right away, but as he met other children who had been through a loss – especially those who had experienced the loss a year or two prior – he began to make progress.
“He began to see, ‘Okay I can see this person now maybe is in a place now, where maybe every day isn’t so awful,’ and it gave him a little more hope that things won’t feel as bad as they do right at this moment,” LaBelle said. “The more time he spent with the group the better he started to feel.”
By the third week of the group sessions, he was actually eating some of the snack they share during group – a huge milestone for a child who had been unable to keep food down.
At the end of the six weeks, he was no longer going to the nurse’s office every day and was expressing his feelings on paper.
“He really was an extreme case, but his illness is almost a metaphor for what all of our kids are going through,” LaBelle said. “They have all this stuff that they are carrying around inside of them. If we don’t give them an opportunity to let that out in a place that’s safe it’s really going to have a negative impact on them in the future.”
Providing a safe space to grieve is what Annie’s Hope – The Bereavement Center for Kids does.
The 2017 Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund grantee provides comprehensive support service to children and teens who are grieving the death of someone significant in their lives.
While they focus on providing support to children ages 3 to 18, they sometimes draw in adults who live in the household.
“Sometimes serving the whole family is just as important as working with the child,” LaBelle said.
Balloon releases are popular with students who want to send special messages to loved ones who died. They write on the balloons and then let them go outside.
When Annie’s Hope began working with kids 20 years ago, there were no other organizations providing grief services to kids, LaBelle said.
“Our founder worked in pediatric nursing, and had a lot of pediatric oncology patients, so she knew that there were a lot of programs and resources for families who had a sick or injured child, but if it came to the point that the child ultimately died, then suddenly there was nothing for the family after that point,” LaBelle said. “And if that child had siblings there really was nothing specifically geared to the sibling of the child who died.”
Kids are growing intellectually, emotionally and spiritually, so their grief is much different than an adult’s.
“And when an adult is grieving as well it’s really hard for them to help the kids, so sometimes the child’s grief gets overlooked,” LaBelle said.
The organization grew from a small effort the executive director started in her home to a group of programs, all geared to connecting families and kids to others who have had similar circumstances.
“Whether you’re looking at our school support program or our camp program, the crux of the whole program is the facilitated peer support that happens in the small group setting,” LaBelle said. “That’s where the magic really happens. They may come from drastically different backgrounds, but because they’ve all had this very similar, very awful experience they almost immediately trust each other, they bond with each other and they have this relationship where they can talk about things that are really hard and they can process some of these really big concerns and fears that they’ve been walking around with.”
Kids often get misinformation or not enough information when there is a death, so they make assumptions that cause them unnecessary worry.
“We talk a lot about being open and honest and letting kids know that it’s okay to have questions and its okay to talk about whatever you want to talk about,” LaBelle said. “Ultimately the worst thing that can happen is that something happens to a parent or a sibling and they don’t get enough information and they just assume things and they’ll wind up feeling like they were responsible. Or they become terrified that everyone else is going to get sick.”
Kids often bottle up their feelings of grief for a variety of reasons – because they don’t want to further upset their other family members, because they don’t know how to express themselves, or they don’t feel like they have anybody to talk to who would understand.
When kids have grief and don’t know what to do with it or are in a place where they can’t express it, they being to exhibit “grief behaviors,” LaBelle said.
Depending on the age of the child, that can vary from thumb-sucking and bed-wetting to refusing to eat, cutting class, falling grades, overeating, and experimenting with drugs and alcohol.
“The school program is one we developed to reach the kids we probably wouldn’t reach otherwise in our family-based program,” LaBelle said. “We go to a lot of schools that have pretty large low income populations because those families don’t have the means to get to us, or maybe there’s not even an adult in that child’s life to get that child into the program.”
The funding from SOS will go to support the school program, which has helped kids in private and public schools throughout the metro east region, from Columbia and Mascoutah, Illinois, to the Parkway, Normandy, Ferguson/Florissant and St. Louis Public school districts.
Typically, a social worker, counselor or administrator from the school will contact Annie’s Hope and ask for assistance with a group of kids who need grief support. They also respond when there is a crisis, such as the sudden death of a student or faculty member.
“Sometimes that’s just phone support for other staff, giving them some resources, explaining the best ways to share that info with parents and students and helping them to review their crisis plan,” LaBelle said. “Other times, if they are concerned about the emotional well-being of people in the school we’ll send someone to help them, or help facilitate a meeting with parents to help explain a situation or offer to be there for the kids.”
When Annie’s Hope staff visits a school to conduct a small grief support program for students, they train a school staff member to continue to run the program once they leave.
“We really try to give somebody from the school the skills and confidence to take on the program moving forward,” LaBelle said. “We want the schools to be able to provide that for kids once we’re not there anymore.”
The primary expense for the Annie’s Hope program is the personnel, because staff facilitates the groups. The nonprofit also purchases some supplies, such as small memorial keepsakes and the creative art activities that help the kids express their feelings.