Grief Support Services for Children and Teens

March 14, 2018

When it comes to grief, one thing we know with certainty is that children grieve differently than adults.

Grief can cause children who have suffered a loss due to death to feel different or to lose confidence or even to act out.  Thankfully, for children and teens in grades kindergarten through twelve, support is available to help them understand their feelings and learn to cope with their sadness.  This support comes from two programs offered by Penn Highlands Community Nurses, or PHCN:  Helping Understand Grief Stages, or HUGS, for Kids and Teens, and Camp Flutterbye.

HUGS for Kids and Teens is a support group that meets each spring at the Central Resource Center, or CRC, located on the campus of Penn Highlands DuBois West in DuBois.  This group, which is free for participants, offers a six week program for children and teens to meet with peers who have similar experiences.  

Group facilitators, Theresa Myers, PhD and Lisa Johnson, separate the participants by age group, organize activities to memorialize the deceased and give the young people an opportunity to speak openly about their feelings.

“It’s important for children to realize that they are not the only person going through such a situation and that other children are experiencing similar feelings,” said Myers.  “While no child is ever forced to speak, we introduce topics in various ways, such as by sharing a book, and we reassure them that they are in a safe place and that it is fine if they choose not to share.”

The activities children can expect include making crafts such as flower pots or wreaths to decorate a grave site or even display in their own home, or bird houses to place in memory of their loved one.  Johnson, who oversees the seventh – twelfth grade participants, will help them to start and maintain a journal in addition to other age-appropriate activities.

HUGS has been ongoing for 20 years since Myers initiated the group as a part of her dissertation to earn her doctoral degree.  “As an educator, I wanted to help educate other teachers about the grieving process for children.  It’s true that children grieve longer than adults, and they often re-grieve, particularly as they reach milestones in their lives,” she said.  

In addition to her experience as a teacher, Myers also draws on her personal experience to help the participants of HUGS.  At age 27, Myers’ husband, age 33, died.  At that time, her children were ages 9 months and 4-years-old.  After some time, Myers re-married a widower who had a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old.  The couple has one child together, a son.

“We are a ‘Brady Bunch’ who combined four children who had lost a parent,” she said.  It is this experience that has motivated her to keep the HUGS support group thriving each year.

The next session of HUGS will begin on Tuesday, March 27, 2018.  The group will meet for six consecutive Tuesdays at 6:30 p.m. in the CRC.  To register, call 814-781-4722.

Camp Flutterybye is a two-day camp held at The Pines in St. Marys on June 7 and 8 from 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.  According to Katie Lenze, volunteer and bereavement coordinator for PHCN, the camp is easy to find and offers many amenities such as a basketball court, indoor swimming pool and swing set, which are all enjoyed by camp participants.

“This camp is for children and teens in kindergarten through twelfth grade who have suffered a loss,” said Lenze.  “We have a medical social worker who facilitates the activities and we work in partnership with the staff of Dickinson Center, Inc., who work closely with the local schools.  We also have lifeguards on duty, as well as a nurse on-call to help with medications and a number of volunteers who oversee the activities.”

Much like HUGS, the activities at Camp Flutterbye are designed to memorialize the loved ones who have passed.  In past years, participants have made ceramic memory plates, memory candles and have even enjoyed a balloon release where goodbye letters were written and attached to the balloons.

“Camp Flutterbye is special because all of the kids have experienced loss, so they are able to get together and realize that they aren’t alone, that others have shared similar experiences,” said Lenze.

Registration is required for this event and camp application forms are available at  Early registration is recommended, as space is limited and openings fill quickly.

Want to learn more about these grief support services for children and teens?  Call PHCN at 814-781-4722.