'They fear they won't ever be happy again'

Children can become very confused when a loved one dies and their own need to grieve needs to be respected.

Children can become very confused when a loved one dies and their own need to grieve needs to be respected.

October 29, 2012

When Pilgrims Hospice opened its doors in January 2000, its goal was to help families, children and teens cope with the grief of a loved one who had either been diagnosed with or died from a terminal illness.

As time went on, however, its focus changed as community members inquired if they could send children there who had experienced the death of a loved one through accident, murder or suicide.

The program was known initially as the Expressive Arts for Grieving Children, Teens and Families Program. Its name has since been changed to the BriarPatch Centre for Grieving Children, Teens and Families.

The corporate name change to BriarPatch was to highlight the change from a program to a centre.

Cheryl Salter-Roberts, manager of Expressive Arts & Family Support Programs at Pilgrims Hospice, said the centre is named after two of her children who died at birth.

She had a son Brett and a daughter Siara. Briar is a combination of their names, and patch is a symbol of healing, patching families back together. Hence, the name BriarPatch.

The typical societal response to helping young people grieve is to sit them down in a counseling setting, and ask how they feel. This approach seldom works, so Pilgrims Hospice uses different more playful techniques.

"From the beginning we have always used art, music and other creative modalities for the exploration process because kids do not always have the language or the words to say, 'This is how I feel.' With art, they get to show us how they feel," said Salter-Roberts.

Involvement in expressive arts programming provides children and teens with the necessary social sanction and permission to express their feelings. They find comfort and relief knowing that others feel the same way they do and that they are not alone.

Pilgrims Hospice, an old brick building at 9808-148 St., is a former convent located next door to St. John the Evangelist Church in west Edmonton. A satellite program has been in operation in Sherwood Park for about five years.

"Kids are often scared or confused or not sure what has taken place," said Salter-Roberts.

"Even though families will explain to their kids that someone has died or someone is ill, it can still be really confusing for kids to understand that."

If a parent dies, a child might be afraid the other parent will die too. Or if a child loses a sibling, he might feel different because all of his friends have siblings and he does not.

"They worry that they won't ever be happy again. Even though they're playing and they're doing okay, they usually do have that worry," she said.

Meanwhile, parents and caregivers are worried about their children's schoolwork and behaviour. Lack of concentration, trying to figure things out, and a feeling of exhaustion are common.


"School performance and changing behaviour are the two most common reactions and we expect to see them," said Salter-Roberts.

Bereaved children and teens who have experienced the death of a family member, friend or teacher are more at risk of psychological difficulties. Helping a bereaved child or teen is the epitome of good preventive mental, physical and spiritual health care.

Some of the children she counsels are as young as two years old. Almost anyone under six cannot comprehend that death is a final event, and the person who died will never be seen again.

A child hopes his dead mother will come through the door at any moment, that she is just away temporarily. Or, children believe they can hop aboard a plane and fly to heaven to see a friend who has died.

At the Pilgrims Hospice, Salter-Roberts emphasizes what grief is, what it feels like, and shows the children and teens that their experiences are normal, even though they may not feel normal.

They also start to examine memories and healing and healthy ways to keep their loved ones in their lives in an emotional, rather than a physical, way.

Determining their support circle is another important step in grieving.

"It's only been in the last few decades where we recognize that children often need support through their grief," said Salter-Roberts.


"For centuries children were involved in birth when it arrived at home and death when it happened. Then we went through a period where children were really sheltered from loss. Kids didn't come to funerals, and we didn't talk about death when they came in the room."

Society has come full circle, and people are realizing that when death occurs, children should be allowed to grieve as the rest of the family does.

Pilgrims Hospice runs other programs as well. HEARTS is a baby-loss support program. Compassionate Friends is for families who have lost a child. HUGS is for families with a child diagnosed with a terminal or life-limiting illness. Kinship Families is for families raising a child, perhaps a grandchild or nephew, where the child's parents have died.

Pilgrims Hospice provides services to grieving families across Alberta. It also offers support via phone, email, home visitations, workshops and community outreach.

Summer day camps, known as Good Grief, are for children who are grieving the loss of someone they love. Grief activities and play are interspersed for participants ranging in age from four to 12.