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Helping a child cope with grief

Madison BuShea loves her daddy.

Photos of them together hang above her white day bed in her pastel blue room: their first ride on Space Mountain, a visit at the zoo and a hug during "Daddy Warm Up Time'' when she would watch TV with her father after her bath.

On Saturday, May 13, 2006, Douglas BuShea left for work by 7 a.m. He kissed his wife and kids and drove to an overtime air-conditioning repair job in his white Ford van. He never came home.

A beam slipped from a forklift and crushed him.

Two years later, the sixth-grader can talk about her father, though it's taken weekly support groups and individual counseling for her to open up.

The accident part is still not easy. But Madison's memories of her father spill out: his favorite cartoon (Sponge Bob Squarepants); his favorite restaurant (Outback Steakhouse); his favorite family outing (fishing in the Everglades).

Madison's journey illustrates the new paradigm in tending to children coping with grief. No more are they closeted away or told to bounce back.

Rather, they hug, they talk, they sing, they draw -- all to bring out memories and begin healing. Children's grief support groups are growing. Schools are jumping in. Bereavement camps and equestrian therapy are the new norm.

"They need to learn to have a language of loss. They need to be able to put their loss into words so they can talk to other people," said Mindy Cassel, a psychologist and grief counselor. Cassel helped found the Children's Bereavement Center 10 years ago in South Miami with fellow counselor Carol Berns.

Therapists recognize five stages of grief: Denial and isolation. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance.

With children, it was assumed that because of their younger age, talking about death would upset them.

"There tends to be a taboo about children and grief," said Sonia Thomas, a children's grief counselor at the Forget-Me-Not Center, affiliated with HospiceCare of Southeast Florida in Broward County.

Yet talking about loss and memorializing their loved one can help children heal.

Immediately after her father's death, Madison, then 9, grew sullen and angry. She broke a window. She stopped attending school. Her father died just weeks before the end of her third-grade year. Only with the promise of no questions did she return to class.

"It would have been like: ‘Oh my God, what happened? Are you OK?' '' Madison said. "And I was like, ‘Oh my God, leave me alone.' ''

Her 7-year-old brother, Douglas, experienced his father's loss differently. His mother says he was stuck at 4, the age when his father died. He reverted to baby behavior, crying for weeks in kindergarten. Two years later, he's just starting to come out of it.

In general, children confronted with a loss may stop doing schoolwork, grow clingy, start sleeping with the surviving parent, alter their diet and hygiene, lash out or withdraw from friends. When those behaviors are prolonged, the child may benefit from grief counseling, experts say.

FINDING SUPPORT

Madison, now 11, goes every Monday evening to the Children's Bereavement Center, which holds sessions at Ransom Everglades School in Coconut Grove. Her brother and mother attend as well.

There, they join other families for pizza, before splitting into age-divided groups.

Each group starts and ends with the same ritual: They sit in a circle, state their name and explain who they lost.

"My name is Madison, and my father died."

The counselor will pose a question -- maybe related to loss or perhaps about summer vacation or a favorite dessert. If children don't want to talk, they can pass.

Mostly, the children play games like Twister, Uno and Texas Hold 'Em. When the 2004 tsunami killed thousands in Indonesia, counselor Mae Greenberg had her middle-schoolers make cards for other children who lost loved ones in the disaster.

"It's so much about having that safe place and knowing they're not the only ones who feel bad," Greenberg said.

Madison, for one, met a boy who was a grade above her in school and a girl from church. Both lost their dads. "It feels good because I have friends there that I know are going through the same problem," she said.

MORE HELP

At Camp Coral, a bereavement camp hosted by the Forget-Me-Not Center, children will personalize lyrics to a song based on grief: I have a loved one who loved to (fill in the blank). At Tomorrow's Rainbow, a ranch in Coconut Creek, kids play with miniature horses as part of their therapy.

In February, the Broward County Schools partnered with the Forget-Me--Not-Center for the first time, with Thomas holding sessions at various schools.‘‘They just had an enormous amount of children who needed help," Thomas said.

The center also offers grief sessions on the hospice campus, in a home behind a white picket fence. Annmarie Fletcher took her two sons there after they watched their grandmother pass away in November.

"This is unfortunately not going to be the last loss'' they have, Fletcher said. "I want them to have the basis for dealing with grief for the rest of their life."

Her older son, Hayden, 12, goes to counseling regularly. Her younger son, Mason, 10, is more reluctant, because the center is next to the hospice where his grandmother died.

Grief counseling is not for everyone and it can harm children if they're forced to attend, Thomas said.

For the BuShea family, the regular weekly sessions have helped, along with creating family rituals.

Madison sleeps with a quilt every night made from her father's shirts. The blue squares are from his work uniform. The soft tan squares with faint palm trees come from the shirt worn during the family's cruise to Jamaica. The fuzzy red plaid is from the shirt he wore to church on Sunday.

Her mother and brother have their own quilts, each made by a quilter. Madison got the idea from an Extreme Makeover episode featuring a child who had lost his father.

Outside Madison's bedroom window, a jasmine tree planted in his honor blooms with small white flowers.

CHILDREN'S GRIEF PROGRAMS

  • Children's Bereavement Center: Holds free sessions for children and their families at Ransom Everglades Upper School, 3575 Main Hwy., Coconut Grove, at 7 p.m. Mondays during the school year. Orientation for new families held every month; must register beforehand. Call 305-668-4902 or visit www.childbereavement.org.
  • Forget-Me-Not Center at HospiceCare of Southeast Florida: Offers art therapy and counseling for children. Hosts Camp Coral in Miami-Dade, Broward and the Keys. Call 954-HOSPICE (467-7423) or visit www.hospicecareflorida.org/forgetmenot-center.html.
  • Gilda's Club: Support group in Fort Lauderdale for families, including children, whose loved ones have had cancer. Call 954-763-6776 or visit www.gildasclubsouthflorida.org.
  • Tomorrow's Rainbow: Equestrian-assisted therapy for children with loss. Coconut Creek. Call 954-978-2390 or visit www.tomorrowsrainbow.org.


RECOMMENDED READING

  • Heart-Shaped Pickles by Karla Wheeler (Quality of Life, $4.95). A little girl sees signs of her grandfather’s love after he passed away.
  • Isabelle’s Dream: A story and activity book for a child’s grief journey by Betsy Bottino Arenella (Quality of Life, $7.95).
  • My Brother Joey Died by Gloria Houston (Julian Messner, $3.08). A child goes through the difficult process of adjusting to the sudden illness and death of a brother.
  • Timmy’s Christmas Surprise by Karla Wheeler (Quality of Life, $4.95). A family’s grief over the death of their cat.
  • Kinda Blue by Ann Grifalconi (Little Brown, $18). A little girl from Georgia whose dad died.
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