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.