By SUE SUCHYTA
SandCastles staff wish more families knew that grief support groups designed for children and teens promote healthy healing for all, not just for those struggling after losing a loved one.
SandCastles, a Henry Ford Health System Hospice grief support system for children, teens and families, is supported entirely through donations and grants. It charges no fees, and accepts no insurance. It asks families to donate to the program’s support when they can, but none are turned away based on their ability to donate.
Bi-weekly, age-appropriate grief support programs are offered in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, with a Downriver site in Riverview, led by professional staff and trained volunteers.
A one-weekend summer bereavement camp is also offered each August, at no cost to participants, with enrollment beginning in late spring.
For more information about SandCastles, call 313-874-6881, or go to www.aboutsandcastles.org.
Peggy Nielsen, manager of SandCastles’ grief support program, said that while grief is a natural thing people go through, it is difficult, and people need support and help.
“To do it alone can be lonely and painful,” Nielsen said. “But to come together, and meet with peers and other people who are going through the same thing, can really help to comfort, bring education, and bring a place for healing. For kids, it helps to normalize what is going on with them.”
Jenny, of Taylor, went to SandCastles with her son Kyle when her husband, Matt, and son John died. She said the support group for parents helped her realize that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Learning that she doesn’t have to hide her feelings also helped, as has knowing that others in the support group have the same feelings and will listen.
Jenny said the age-appropriate support group for Kyle helped him as well.
“They showed me ways to deal with my grief,” Kyle said, “like having a balloon release or candle ceremony. Even though many people think (the support group) is a boring experience, it is actually quite fun.”
Madeline, 9, of Allen Park said she has fun with the crafts she does at the support group, and it feels good to be with other children who have feelings like she does.
Her parents, Josh and Colleen, took her to SandCastles when her maternal grandfather — with whom she she spent at least four days a week — died.
“Being that there are other kids like her going through a lot of the same kind of emotions and feelings about things, it was a connection point, and she could feel that she wasn’t on her own,” Colleen said.
She said Madeline loved going to Camp Erin as well.
Her father said the crafts and activities at camp and the bi-monthly group sessions give her an outlet and help her express her feelings, like when she is lighting a candle in a mason jar she decorated in memory of her grandfather.
“Periodically when she is feeling down, she will want to get it out and light it, in memory of her grandfather,” Josh said. “It’s things that get used, and items and exercises and discussions that really help her to not only feel that her emotions are validated, but also give her an outlet to express what she has been feeling.
“Grieving isn’t just a short process. It is not something that you complete right away. It is an ongoing thing. And as long as she has got her tools that SandCastles is providing, she will be able to work through that when the emotions come to light.”
Colleen said children arrived home from the weekend camp with a blanket, symbolizing a hug to them from the SandCastles group.
Her parents said when they see her using the items, they serve as tools to help them recognize how she is feeling, even when she does not want to talk.
Kelly Beesley, program coordinator for the Downriver SandCastles site, said creative art and play lets children work through their feelings, and they feel a great weight is lifted from their shoulders when they listen to other children and learn they are not alone in their experience of loss.
“Loss is difficult, processing grief is hard even for adults,” Beesley said. “Children may not be able to understand the permanency of death, (and) have the self-awareness or ability to identify the feelings of grief.
“They may not have the vocabulary to articulate their feelings, or enough life experience to develop appropriate coping strategies. Adults in their life are often processing their own grief.”
Nielsen said as children become more comfortable with the support group, they begin to validate their peers, saying, “I felt that way, too,” and then sharing an experience.
Nielsen said they use a three-task model to help children and teens work through the grieving process, and they go back and forth between the three tasks.
They talk about what death is, and what happens physically when someone dies, and if they believe in an afterlife, what happens to a person’s spirit.
The second task is to understand their feelings, how to be mindfulness of them, and acceptable ways to relieve stress.
The third task looks at ways to go on living and loving.
Nielsen said SandCastles has 10 staff members and eight sites in three counties, serving 1,000 participants a year, and they could not reach as many children and teens as they do without their trained volunteers.
She said new volunteers are trained and supported by staff and experienced volunteers.
“(With) a willingness to be present, and an open heart, you’ll find that the volunteer experience is infinitely rewarding and inspiring,” Beesley said.
By asking children and teens what support they need, Nielsen said they show them they care.
“We do need to support youth going through this process,” Nielsen said. “I think there is no perfect thing to say, other than, ‘I’m here for you. I care about you.’ The reality is, ask the child or teen, because they will tell you.”