When Tina Kaiser’s husband, Dr. Michael Kaiser, died from cancer in February 2012, she began a new life as a single mother to her two children, Evan, now 8, and Alanna, now 7.
While both of Kaiser’s children were able to talk about their father’s death, she found that her son, in particular, would sometimes hold in his sadness because he didn’t want to make her sad too. She wanted a way for her children to find support in their grief and to learn about ways to support them herself.
“After the death of someone close, it can take all of your energy to physically get up in the morning to take care of your family and household,” says Kaiser, who also has two college-age stepchildren, Megan and Danielle. “You don’t have the energy for anything else. Just because the kids are at school and you’ve actually showered that day, and you look OK on the outside, it doesn’t mean you are exactly OK.”
Her husband spent his last few days with hospice services, and she felt fortunate to learn through them about Journeys, a support group for grieving children, teens and their families started by Hospice Care of Southwest Michigan in 2002. Journeys, which meets the second and fourth Tuesdays and Wednesdays of each month at Grief Support Services at Oakland Centre, 2255 W. Centre Ave., offers an age-appropriate support program for preschool and school-aged children and teens, along with their caregivers, who may also need help recognizing and understanding the symptoms of grief in their children.
“At school, kids who have experienced a death may have 20 kids surrounding them, but they don’t have any idea who has lost someone important in their life. Here they can look around them and know and see others who have lost someone,” says Amy Embury, a grief support counselor with Journeys. “We give kids a language they can use about what it is they’re going through. One of the things kids say they want is to be told the truth. We talk about death and what it’s like, and we help caregivers answer questions about what it’s like. They can go beyond, ‘I don’t feel well. I’m sad.’”
Journeys isn’t just for people who have used hospice services, as many might assume because it’s under the Hospice Care of Southwest Michigan umbrella; it’s for any caregivers and any children who have lost someone close to them, whether a parent, grandparent, sibling, aunt, uncle or friend.
“Support groups like Journeys help normalize grief too,” says Laura Latiolais, director of Community Relations and Development with Hospice Care of Southwest Michigan. “One of the things you hear all the time is that children are so resilient, but children don’t grieve the same way as adults and often don’t really talk about it. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t grieving. Their feelings may come and go. There is no time limit, no set pattern.”
Journeys is structured so that each meeting involves an informal family meal and time for socializing. Children and caregivers then attend age-appropriate groups where the focus is often on a particular aspect of grief. They may create a craft, share their experience of loss, or participate in an expressive activity, such as making music or movement.
“They do a really good job at remembering the person and honoring the person,” Kaiser says. Seeing a collection of candles, each dedicated to a specific loved one, can help kids feel empowered and less alone. Art projects that help memorialize their loved one give kids an opportunity to let memories surface that may sometimes get lost among the demands of daily life.
“And sometimes it’s just about being in a group of people who understand,” Kaiser says. “You don’t always need to talk about the death to feel comforted. There are very few places where my children now have peers. But this is one place where they have peers, people who can really understand what it is they’re going through.”
After attending Journeys for a year and a half, Kaiser has met many people for whom the death of a loved one is new and raw. “I take comfort in helping the newer people,” she says. “When you know you can help someone, it helps ease your pain. Not only are you getting the benefit for your children and yourself, but you are able to help someone along in their journey. It makes it easier to bear.”