Awoken by his mother’s screams, Jonathan jumped out of bed and ran to his door. His protective older sister, Samantha, 13, tried to push him back into his room, but it was too late. Jonathan had already glimpsed his father in the midst of a seizure, heard his mother’s frantic call to 911.
To their mother, Dawn Pinghera, everything was surreal about the night her 39-year-old husband, Brian, died suddenly of respiratory failure. Dawn’s father had died of a heart attack when she was 14. Now her young children had lost their father.
“Walking back into my house when I returned from the hospital and seeing my mother there, I just thought, this is déjà vu. I’m living my mother’s life,” she says.
Dawn was determined that things would turn out differently. When Dawn lost her father, she and her siblings were encouraged to keep on living as if nothing had happened. No one ever talked about the death; no one ever suggested Dawn might benefit from counseling. So Dawn knew her grieving children needed support.
“Jonathan and Samantha were experiencing nightmares, insomnia, anxiety and all sorts of fears—fear of death, of losing me,” Dawn says. “Samantha was terrified of seeing her father’s ghost, which is not that surprising considering how many people kept saying, ‘Your father is always watching over you.’ I knew they needed help, and I didn’t feel competent to handle it on my own.”
She didn’t have to. Dawn was referred to Supporting Kidds, a local organization that provides counseling and support for grieving children and their families. Within weeks, the Pingheras had met for an evaluation with Kristin Van Doren, a staff therapist and clinical coordinator for Supporting Kidds. Van Doren suggested individual counseling for Samantha and family counseling for Jonathan. Supporting Kidds also offers group therapy. The Pingheras signed up for the next available six-week session.
Supporting Kidds, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, was born of a “grassroots coming together,” says interim executive director Tony Felicia. Edna DeVito, a registered nurse, and the Rev. Marlene Walters, founded Supporting Kidds to help children affected by divorce (the second D in Kidds), though they focused on the children who had lost a parent through death.
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“We found that there were other services out there to help children affected by divorce,” Van Doren says, “but no one was specializing in helping grieving children.” Most mental health practitioners are not taught much about loss and grief in school, she says, and there are even fewer who know about loss and grief as experienced by children.
“At Supporting Kidds, we know how to handle children and families with loss, including younger children, which is an uncommon specialty,” Van Doren says. “We are prevention oriented. These are just normal families who have had something untoward happen to them. We are here to foster and support their own natural healing process.”
The founders discovered a model in the Dougy Center in Portland, Oregon, the first center in the country to provide peer support groups for grieving children. Supporting Kidds was established just seven years after Dougy Center was. In the two decades since, the Delaware organization held its first bereavement support program, and its professionals and trained volunteers counseled more than 4,700 children and families. For much of that time, the organization limited itself to group therapy sessions held in rented spaces, but in 2004 Supporting Kidds opened its own homelike center in Hockessin, which allowed for the addition of individual and family counseling. The organization also began offering a one-day summer camp session for children.
“Some families will move through all the services we offer. Some might do group once, while others find it helpful to do over and over again,” Van Doren says. “It’s incredibly powerful for kids to be able to talk to others their age who have had a similar loss, because it’s not very common.”
In addition to undergoing family and individual counseling, the Pingheras attended two series of group sessions. “The kids benefited from going through it twice with different sets of kids. Seeing that there were more children like them who had lost a parent, and hearing the same messages again, really validated it for them,” Dawn says.
“I was shy and at first I didn’t want to come here at all, but by the second week I felt glad to be here,” Samantha says. “I felt better knowing that I wasn’t alone.”
Mondays were always the hardest for Jonathan, Dawn says. He would come home from school after hearing his friends talk about what they had done with their father over the weekend, which made him feel his loss all the more acutely. He would bristle, too, when other kids or teachers would feel sorry for him or treat him differently because he had no father. He wanted to be like everyone else, Dawn says.
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Talking with other kids his age who had similar feelings helped Jonathan. The kids’ sessions are divided into age groupings to allow for developmentally appropriate games and discussions. Younger children need help understanding that death is permanent. Older children benefit from talking about their deceased parent, which is sometimes easiest through a game. On show-and-tell night, the children bring in objects that remind them of the parent who died. Telling the others why the object has significance makes it easier to talk about their loved ones overall and to express their emotions, Van Doren says.
“The first week, kids come in with their heads hanging low and dragging their feet, but within a few weeks they come in skipping and smiling. They want to be with us,” says Suzi Ashmead of Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, a volunteer who has facilitated group sessions for more than a decade.
While the kids are meeting, the parents discuss how they can help their children with the grieving process. “The parents give each other advice,” Ashmead says. “The parents leave here with so much more confidence in their ability to help their kids.”
Counseling does make a difference, Samantha says. “If you didn’t go and talk to someone, you’d probably end up in your house alone every day crying. I learned that it’s OK to cry sometimes and miss my dad, and that you can still go on with your life even though you’ve lost a big part of it.”