One of the most rewarding experiences of my life was when I was a volunteer grief facilitator for children in Orlando. We have an amazing organization here called New Hope for Kids. Their mission is to provide support groups for families affected by loss while also providing a place for kids to express their grief through play. It's absolutely fascinating to watch. New Hope's Center for Grieving Children is in an old two story house where each room is comfy and cozy but also very functional.
Each night, all of us volunteers would meet in a closed room and center ourselves. We'd first get out any concerns or issues we had in our own lives, put on some new age type music, and release all of it. We'd focus on our mission and what we were to do that night. We needed to leave all outside factors out and just be. The families would make their way in with the kids, we'd greet them warmly in the open living room, and eventually the parents would go for group while we took the kids upstairs and split them into small groups by age. We never pried, only offered a place for them to share about anything, not just their loss. We had a talking stick that allowed each child to be the focus without interruption by anyone else. We had to go through an intensive training where we learned the technique of reflection. It carried with me for many, many years in my dealings with children and I only recently realized I don't use it much anymore. In a nutshell, whatever they said we reflected back to them, to make sure they knew they were being heard. In addition, this enabled them to open up more and share more. Never asking questions, never making statements, and never assuming. Even though my marriage failed, this is one of the main things that helped me with my husband and was taught to us in marriage counseling. Try it sometime. Even when the kids weren't speaking, we would have to recognize their actions and say "Sarah is playing with the doll," "John is talking on the phone," "Megan is burying the dog in the sand," etc. This again reassured them that someone was listening to them and validating their feelings.
I mentioned each room served a specific purpose and they were awesome. We had one room with padded walls, a boxing bag, gloves, balls, and everything one could need to get anger out. Kids were allowed to kick, scream, and do whatever they wanted in there to express themselves. As an adult, there are many times when I wish I had one of these. We had an arts and crafts room, naturally, where the kids could paint whatever they want, their grief often coming out in vibrant color. Their completed masterpieces hung like wallpaper all over the house. We also had areas with dolls, dress up, and sand tables. One of the most poignant experiences I had was watching a child bury a daddy figurine in the sandbox, which was one way for her to express the loss of her father. It was amazing how kids would open up to you about their losses once they trusted you and during normal, everyday play. We also had playhouses outside on the patio and I remember vividly connecting with a sweet little girl whose dad had killed her mother. Every week she would come with her brother and she'd take me by the hand and always want to play house. Always. She was as sweet as could be.
While all of this play was going on, the families were doing grieving and chatting of their own. It was great for the families to have a private place of their own to speak to others who were in similar situations, cry, vent, be angry, and let it all out away from the kids. I can imagine it being such a relief having a place for their kids to play and be taken care of while taking care of themselves also. Truly an amazing program.
We'd always end the night with a reunion of family, child, and volunteer in the main room. We'd all go around and share something we did or learned and closed with prayer. The amount of gratitude and pain in that room was intense.
I learned so much, so much, from this volunteer experience and carry much of it with me today. I am so thankful for it and can only hope and pray the program continues to have an incredibly healing history.