grief counseling for children

Terry Fox statue in Ottawa

Image via Wikipedia

Terry Fox Day, week, month, millennium – take your pick – is upon us again. Being a Canadian hero/icon, it’s hard to get away from the fundraising done in his honor/memory during the month of September, but Dee continues to be unsettled by the nation’s adoration and determination to carry on the fight against cancer – via money – in his name.

As I do every fall, I sent numerous email reminders to the school asking that Dee be allowed to opt out of all the assemblies and/or information sessions about Terry. They nearly all include some sort of visual representation of Terry, and she simply can’t see the guy without it conjuring up negative emotions. I have told her that someday it won’t bother her as much to which she replied,

“It will always bother me.”

Perhaps this is due to the fact that her first encounter with him occurred shortly after our moving up to Canada from the U.S. when she was dealing with all sorts of adjustments and readjustments, and poor Terry was swept up into the emotional stew never to be released. Whatever the reason, neither Rob nor I feel that Dee’s participation in Terry Fox Day is important enough to force it on her. It’s just another made up holy day. She is happy to take her toonie and walk with the other kids during the walk/run in his name and that’s fine with us.

Inadvertently, however, one of the staff showed her class a video about Terry last Friday. When she informed me, all I could do was sigh. I can’t run interference 24/7 and I told her that. Sometimes these things will happen and she is going to have to open her mouth to object herself or suck it up and deal.

“It couldn’t have been that upsetting,” I told her.

“It was,” she insisted. “It makes my tummy feel uncomfortable.”

“Not that much,” I countered, “or you would have spoken up, and you would have said something as soon as you got home from school.”

She couldn’t refute that because she didn’t mention it until later that evening as we were on our way to shop for birthday presents for upcoming parties to which she has been invited.

“I still didn’t like it,” she replied.

And I don’t imagine she did. I can’t stand watching movies or television shows that depict death or grieving. It’s just not entertaining.When you haven’t experienced something, seeing it is enlightening and gives you a chance to mentally try it on and live it, but once you can call an event your own through first hand experience, the vicarious thrill isn’t so thrilling anymore.

Terry Fox reminded me though that although Dee is a bit over experienced in the dealing with death department for someone her age. She still needs to be prepped in advance of  incoming where death is concerned.

Rob and the older girls have another funeral up north to attend, and as I was explaining to Dee why were weren’t going (Rob and I are agreed on no more funerals for Dee unless she had a relationship with the deceased), she inquired as to whether or not she and I would be taking care of Edie’s dog, Loki.

The dog is getting on in years and has been suffering with diminished mobility that’s gotten worse over the past year. He can’t be left home alone even if it’s just overnight, and he is getting to be too much work to ask someone to take him in for a couple of days here or there. Still, we’ve taken Loki before, soDee’s question was a logical one.

“No, honey, ” I said, “Loki is a lot of work now, and he is more comfortable being with Edie anyway.”

“Because of his legs?” Dee said.

“Yes, his legs aren’t getting better, and Edie knows best what to do for him.”

“They aren’t getting better?” the tone and not the words contained the actual question.

“No,” I said, choosing my words very carefully. “Sometimes, doctors can’t do anything, and they can’t do anything for Loki. His legs will get worse, and then he will not be able to use them.”

She nodded thoughtfully and said, “That’s why Edie is getting the wheelchair thing.”

I nodded, “But that’s just to make things a bit easier. Loki isn’t going to get well.”

“Animals don’t live forever,” she agreed, “and neither do humans.”

And that’s where the conversation was left. Later on, as I retold it to Rob, I pointed out that it was only in the moment I realized that Dee needed advance preparation for the inevitable where her sister’s dog is concerned.

The dog, in a twist of ironic fate that makes me dislike the universe’s odd sense of interconnectedness, is suffering from a demyelinating illness that is slowly paralyzing him. Once it’s done its dirty work on his lower half, it will travel up the spine and leave him essentially trapped in a useless body. It’s very similar in effect to the disease that killed my late husband, Will. It’s not consciously painful, but the collateral issues can cause discomfort and anxiety. There isn’t much that can be done because science just hasn’t found a way to replace the damaged myelin sheath that covers nerves in people or animals. Once the protective covering is gone that’s it. What’s left is no more or less than a prison made of flesh. To say that I am not eager to bear witness to that, or to the pain it will cause Edie, is understating and understatement.

Though Loki’s issues are not new, the diagnosis is and the game plan is in early days. Progressive degenerative illnesses vary from according to the individual, and so everyone waits, watches and hopes – but it’s never to early to begin to prepare. I am a Boy Scout in this matters, and so I laid a bit of the groundwork for Dee.

Tomorrow, she will hang out in the library while her classmates watch yet another inspirational video about Terry Fox, and then she will join them as they run or walk to raise money to beat a disease that will never be beaten. Death comes to all things and cancer or degenerative illness are but two of its avenues.

I wonder if the organizers picked the last month of summer on purpose? With its fading, falling retreat to pre-winter here, it’s a fitting season for such an event.


There are no free-standing hospices in the Edmonton area. I was a bit surprised by this because there are three and a fourth under construction back in Des Moines. Hospice care is in home here. Rob’s late wife, Shelley, received hospice in the house where we live. The Pilgrim’s Hospice trains volunteers, offers limited day time respite and runs a variety of bereavement programs. One the programs they offer is a creative arts group for children between 3 and 18 years of age. They have the children split into three different age groups and they meet to discuss their losses and feelings through song and art projects. The program even offers day camps over the summer months when Canadians typically don’t have any type of programs for kids at all because they are quite serious about their vacationing and family time. This last November, Katy was having some difficulties again and Rob and I decided to look into options for her and came up with this program. We realize this is going to be an on-going process for her because her perception of her dad and his death will change as she grows and her ability to understand and process matures. It’s ironic. One of the things that adults envy about children in the grief process is their seeming ability to grieve in short bursts rather than carry it around morning, noon and night, but the downside is that they will be burdened with reprocessing their parent’s death at every milestone along the way to adulthood and beyond.

While the children gather for their program, the adults meet in another room to do roughly the same thing the kids are doing minus the singing and paints. I think I might like to discuss my grief journey over a coloring book though or while making cookies or learning to dance. Somehow that doesn’t seem as daunting. The group is mixed. We were not all widowed though about half were. Others had lost small children or their own parents or grandparents. As I listened to one person describe losing a parent and grandparent with such visible distress I thought back to the numerous posts on the widow board where other widows would rant rabidly about the fact that this kind of loss is not equal to the loss of a spouse. Even Rob mentioned later that he couldn’t work up too much empathy for the person, and truthfully I couldn’t either, but I did feel sad for this person who obviously needed this lost parent so much that it was debilitating for them. A person expects their parents to die before them but our level of dependence on them varies so much from one of us to the next that I can easily see how someone whose adult life was integrally wrapped up in a parent’s could be as bereft as someone who losses a spouse. It’s very sad in another kind of way. The parents who lost children are the only grief victims that widows seem to be accepting of and often allow to trump their own grief cards. Rightly so, in my opinion. I was reading a blog entry the other day by a young woman who tragically lost her little girl over the summer and I just sat and bawled as I did so. The thought of losing Katy seizes me from time to time and it freezes my soul. I have an old friend in Iowa who is observing the sixth anniversary of the loss of her three year old later this month. He was murdered by her now ex-husband. I marvel still at how she carried on and put her life back together. Whenever I felt sorry for myself while Will was sick or after he died, I thought about her and kicked myself in the butt to do better.

The widows in the group last night were not as far out as Rob or I. Not even a year. Sudden deaths and they were grappling with the acceptance. There is a huge difference – a gulf maybe – between sudden widows and those of us who knew or had an inkling that it was coming. We don’t tend to wrestle with disbelief as much as mourn for the lost time. Time lost to the illness. Time in the future that won’t be. It is hard to listen to fresh grief. To see it. There is that look in the eyes. A tenseness to their frames, almost a full body clench. One widow talked about still not being able to sleep. I didn’t realize myself just how much I needed sleep until I was able to sleep again like a normal person does. During the three years leading up to Will’s death, I lived and breathed sleep debt, getting by on as little as three or four hours a night at times. One or two late nights now and I am near collapse. My body simply refuses to let me run a debt of any kind now. Smart body. The anger too is palpable in the freshly minted. I recoil even more from it now than I did during my time on the widow board though I had my anger then too. Anger is exhausting. After the meeting I felt compelled to speak to one widow whose first year is up just a few days after the coming second anniversary for Will. She asked if it gets better. And the answer is not that simple. It gets better only in that it begins to change. I could tell she was disappointed by that. I didn’t tell her that it never goes away and that she will carry it in some form or another always. I think she assumed because I was there with Rob that I was all better now. Everyone thinks that. I am certainly happy again. I am building a life with Rob that I love and I am so wonderfully blessed by his love and by the new family he has brought Katy and I into, but it doesn’t change the past in anyway. It transforms our now and our future.

The woman who lead our group got into grief counseling after losing her tow youngest children at birth. She felt better by giving back and eventually back a counselor. It was an interesting thing that I can relate to. I always felt good being able to share with newer widowed people on the YWBB. I was sad and a little angry when I had to leave there, but I knew I had to give that up – at least in that setting – because of the personal attacks I had experienced at fingertips of a few widowed who did not see me as a good example or as being someone who had anything of import to say about grief and the journey we were all on. Granted, I could be pointed – though I saved that for those of my own or greater vintage, but last night I thought perhaps I had found a new outlet for my still abiding need to share my experience and journey. Something I am going to give much thought to in the coming months. I knew after Will died that I someday would give back in the hospice. I am not quite ready to volunteer in that setting though. I am still a bit too raw. Maybe this type of group setting is more my answer.