Kids' Haven Blog
a past participant shares her story
When I first walked into Kids’ Haven, I was terrified. I didn’t want to talk about how my dad died or how I was doing; these were the same questions everyone was asking me with a look of pity on their face. I was tired of people trying to get me to talk about it. I had always been really close with him and I was still processing his death; the fact that he wasn’t there anymore was something that I was still kind of denying, and being at a grief support group made everything feel too real. I didn’t want to talk to anyone about what I was feeling because I didn’t exactly know what I was feeling; everything was numb.
I was eight years old when my dad died. It was the summer before third grade, my family had just moved to Lynchburg, and suddenly I was dealing with the loss of my father. My family started going to Kids’ Haven that fall, but I wasn’t ready to talk about it. At dinner, even though the conversation was usually pretty light hearted, I didn’t talk very much, and in groups I shared very little, mostly listening to what others had to say. I was content with listening, and no one ever made me say anything if I didn’t want to.
Even though I wasn’t really sharing, my family continued going to Kids’ Haven, and slowly I grew more comfortable; as I listened to more people talk about their loss, I began to make sense of what was going on in my head. Hearing everyone’s stories made me feel less alone. I had lost my dad, but others had lost their moms, siblings, grandparents, uncles, and aunts. Even though everyone had a different story, I could relate to their experiences; the things going on in their head were the same things going on in mine. I also developed a really close relationship with some of the facilitators, and I began to feel more comfortable talking in the group. What was once an incredibly daunting, stranger-filled place became something I looked forward to every other week. It was somewhere that gave me a break from whatever was going on in my world, a place where I could just talk to people who knew me and were excited to talk to me. I started contributing more to conversations and talking about my dad, not necessarily how he died, but at least some of the things I was feeling.
I didn’t fully tell the story of my dad’s death until about three years after I started going to Kids’ Haven; it took me a long time to get to a place where I knew what I wanted to say and felt comfortable saying it. And as I told the story, there was no judgement or pressure; I could stop at anytime. I wasn’t talking because someone was making me, but because after hearing so many others talk over the years, I knew that it was what I needed to do to fully accept my father’s death. As new people joined our group, as I sat next to their familiar shyness and fresh grief that had once been mine, I now took the lead in sharing. Just as I had listened to so many before me, I knew that they now needed someone to listen to, someone who could show them that things were going to be okay and eventually the world would make sense again.
Kids’ Haven also gave me an outlet to share certain things that I worried were too sensitive to share with my family. Sometimes, especially near the holidays or an anniversary when there were a lot of memories floating around, I resisted talking about my dad because I was afraid of upsetting my mom or brother. Even if it wasn’t something particularly sad, even if I had a happy memory that I wanted to laugh about, I felt guilty because every muscle in my body was telling me that I should be crying. At Kids’ Haven though, I could talk about some of my favorite stories - like the time he organized a four person soccer game in our front yard or how we’d used to jam together, him playing the guitar while I sang - and I didn’t have to talk about those things in a sad way or feel guilty for smiling as I talked about them; I could just share them as nice little souvenirs that I would always have to remember him.
Now, almost ten years after his death, I have so many good memories of growing up with my dad, and it’s because I shared them at Kids’ Haven rather than pushing them away. Sometimes it’s painful to remember, but talking about those good things were equally as important as talking about the bad things that happened when he died or the sadness I had felt since.
I’m a senior in high school now, and I’ve recently gone back to intern and volunteer at Kids’ Haven. Now I go to group nights, help set up, and sit in with the elementary age group. I help facilitate conversations and activities and share parts of my story with kids going through the same thing I did. This summer I’ve been helping in the office with some organization and community outreach as well. Kids’ Haven has been such a major part of my life that has been integral in shaping who I am. The understanding of grief that I gained helped me become aware of my emotions and made me feel less alone at an incredibly difficult time in my life. Most importantly, it was a way for me to honor and remember my dad, not only helping me express how I felt about his death, but also reminding me of how much joy I have contained in the memories of his life.
what to expect at group night
Walking into a place where you don’t know anyone and have no idea what to expect is scary. And knowing that it’s a place where you’re supposed to be talking about a sensitive subject, the loss of a loved one, makes it even more terrifying. Kids’ Haven, though, isn’t something you should fear or dread. Talking about loss can be hard, but at Kids’ Haven, you don’t have to say or do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable. Here’s an idea of what to expect at Kids’ Haven Group Nights from a person who participated in the program for four years and continues to go as a volunteer.
Right when you walk in the door, you’ll get a name tag.
Don’t feel pressure to learn everyone’s names. Everyone (facilitators, kids, parents) wears name tags. Usually there will be some supplies so you can decorate them with colorful markers or stickers. This can be a fun activity when you first walk in to get a little bit more comfortable, but don’t feel like you have to. Mostly name tags are a way for people to get to know you and for you to familiarize yourself with everyone else. In addition to name tags, sometimes before dinner there are small crafts and activities set out. If you want a distraction or something or do with your hands, you can doodle, paint, or even mess around with some playdough before dinner starts.
Dinner is a time to get to know people.
Usually families sit together at dinner, especially the first few times they come to Kids’ Haven. A table sits about eight people though, so you’ll likely be sitting with other families or some facilitators. Dinner conversation is usually pretty casual and light; the discussion doesn’t usually center around your lost loved one or grief. If it’s your first time, you might introduce yourself to the people around you, talk about where you go to school, or discuss what you like to do in your free time. That being said, there’s no pressure to say anything if you don’t want to. Also, there’s always plenty of food, and sometimes even leftovers, so don’t be afraid to get seconds or even thirds. Dinner is a time to relax and get comfortable before groups start. At the end of dinner, there might be a few announcements and new families may be introduced, and then everyone splits into groups with their facilitators.
In groups, you don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to.
Groups are organized by age, and there are usually one or two facilitators for each group. There’s an elementary school group, middle school group, high school group, and a group for adults; preschool age children usually stay downstairs with a facilitator and do a craft or play a game, while the other groups go to separate rooms upstairs. Every group is different, but usually it starts with everyone sitting around a table and introducing themselves. Each person goes around the table and says their name and the person they know who died. Introductions like this take place in every group, but if you don’t feel comfortable saying something, “pass” is always an option. After introductions, the structure of groups becomes more varied. Elementary and middle school groups might read a story and talk about some of the topics and their relation to grief or do an activity with some form of discussion. High schoolers and adults also do activities and have discussions about different topics related to grief and loss. There is absolutely no pressure in any age group to contribute to the discussion; if you just want to listen, that is more than okay. You can talk as little or as much as you want to, and again, “pass” is always an option if you don’t feel comfortable sharing.
Confidentiality is really important.
Every group at Kids’ Haven also starts with a conversation about confidentiality. Whatever you say in your group is confidential; facilitators won’t talk to parents about what their child says, and you aren’t supposed to talk about anything that anyone else shares in the group. Feel free to share with your family the general topic of discussion or things that you contributed, just not the specifics of what others said. Kids’ Haven is meant to be a place where you can express your feelings without feeling judged or exposed. Everyone is really respectful of what you want to say and everyone acknowledges your feelings and individual experience. The only time anything someone says would be shared outside the group is if something a participant says causes concern that they might harm themself or others. Kids’ Haven is by definition a safe place, a place of refuge from the isolation that often comes with grief. Sharing is optional, and nothing you share can hurt you.
After groups, everyone gathers for a closing circle.
After groups, everyone comes back together in the dining area for a closing circle. Everyone holds hands, crossed right over left, in a big circle, with one or two people in the middle. Usually the lights will be off and one person will hold a lighted candle as someone else reads a poem called “We Remember Them.” At the end of the poem, the candle is blown out and a “squeeze” goes around the circle, each person passing a firm and reassuring squeeze to the person to their side. Finally, everyone untwists. The closing circle can be incredibly emotional, especially if it’s your first time, but it’s a really great way to close a Kids’ Haven Group Night. Personally, it’s one of my favorite parts. It’s an extremely reflective moment, and everyone is standing there supporting one another, even if they don’t know each other very well, all joined by shared experiences.
It’s very relaxed, but also very healing to know that there are others going through the same thing you are.
Kids’ Haven is a different experience for everyone.
After your first time at Kids’ Haven, it’s hard to know how you’ll feel. Just as every person experiences loss differently, every person feels differently when it comes to talking about loss. I’ll admit, after going to Kids’ Haven for the first time, I still dreaded going back. I was afraid I was going to have to talk about something I wasn’t ready to talk about. It took me a few times to get comfortable. Some people decide to only go to Kids’ Haven once or twice; others continue coming for months or years. Some people come to Kids’ Haven just days after the death of a loved one, while others don’t start coming until some time has passed since the loss. Depending on where you are with your grief, you might not feel that Kids’ Haven is the right place for you or your family. Kids’ Haven is meant to be a pathway to opening up the conversation about the death of a loved one within families. After going to Kids’ Haven, have a conversation with your family about the topics you discussed in your group, the things you said, or even the things you thought, but weren’t ready to say. Your thoughts and feelings are important, and Kids’ Haven is only one of the many ways you can express and understand your grief.