Kids' Grief Support - It's Out Of Line
Have you ever driven a car that pulls to the left or right on a perfectly good stretch of road? Grief is a lot like this. Our lives are going in one direction, then a death loss occurs and steers us away from where we think we should be tracking. When we developed Bernie’s Buddies kids and youth programming, we weren’t looking to reinvent the wheel – our purpose is to realign it.
Having accessible, effective alternatives to conventional therapy resources is becoming less unusual in the world of youth mental health (thank goodness). The same approach for grief support options, which directly impact mental health, is still, however, glaringly absent.
We aim to fill that gap. What makes our approach different is combining three evidence-informed practices in a format that engages kids and youth in a space where grief is not brushed off, shamed, or uncomfortable. When we help “give permission” to grieve together, grief is normalized and healing can begin.
Bernie’s Buddies workshops are built on a foundation of peer support, fostering a sense of community where participants develop confidence to share their stories and emotions with others in their age group who know how a death loss feels. Our facilitators and volunteers have also experienced death losses and have an appreciation for what the participants may be going through.
Purposely sequenced activities follow the group’s energy arc, building trust and encouraging opportunities to engage with each other. Our participants learn and practice new skills, improving their ability to focus while navigating challenging feelings. They can also gain a sense of control in their lives when almost everything else feels like chaos. Each session consists of the same format so participants have a safe, predictable environment and know what to expect each time.
Therapy Dog Visit
The first activity is a therapy dog visit. Research has shown that the seemingly simple act of interacting with the dog can reduce anxiety, deepen breathing, reduce blood pressure and raise oxytocin (a hormone with many positive functions including social bonding, physical relaxation, and easing stress). Practical observations from our workshops have demonstrated that just having the therapy dog in the room breaks the ice in a way that humans cannot, allowing children and youth to give and receive unconditional affection, and creates a common interest among participants besides their grief.
Our next activity is yoga exercise with mindfulness. Non-competitive physical movement is vital to releasing tension from grieving, developing bodies and experimenting with poses that feel good are skills that can be used in life outside the workshop. As our bodies relax, we are able to make space for exploring our emotions. Once we create this space, we can approach our feelings with more awareness. How does my body feel when I’m sad? How does it feel when I’m angry or happy? We also do breathing exercises that help regulate mood and increase a sense of calm.
Creative Grief Conversation
All of this leads to our third activity, which is creative grief conversation. This is encouraged through drawing, making a craft, reading stories, or playing music. It is during this section that the participants truly create a sense of community through sharing experiences and learning more about and supporting each other. They learn it’s OK to cry in front of and with others. They also learn it’s OK to laugh and that sadness and joy can coexist even in challenging emotions.
Our workshops run for 1.5 hours, one evening per week for four weeks. Sessions are grouped by age to offer developmentally appropriate support during activities. We find small groups most effective, often ranging from 3 to 8 participants at a time. Parents and caregivers are encouraged to connect with one another in a separate area or room while their children are participating in the workshop.
While none of the above sounds radical when considered individually, our goal is to provide kids the opportunity to “try on” various ways of living with their grief in one spot in the same session. We also want to ensure any child who could benefit from this type of option is able to access it regardless of ability to pay. Thanks to our generous donors and supporters, all of our workshops are available at no cost.
We are also able to partner with schools, community organizations, and other nonprofits to further our reach. If you know of a group who might be interested in having us do a partnered workshop, please let us know. We are happy to do a virtual presentation explaining what we’re all about and how we can tailor our format for the group’s needs. When we can return to in-person presentations we’ll even bring along a therapy dog.