By Donna Kane, M.A.
Parents of a preschooler called JCS requesting a therapist for their 4-year-old girl. She had always been a happy, easy going child but, recently began having nightmares and was clingy and fearful of going to school. When asked if anything at home had changed, at first her parents said nothing had changed. They then mentioned that the girl’s grandmother died a few weeks ago but went on to say that she had lived out of town and their daughter barely seemed to notice her absence.
A high school senior began to engage in uncharacteristically risky behaviors. Instead of his usual sensitive, kind demeanor, he was angry and defiant. His parents were worried about the lack of concern he was showing for his own safety. “Any changes in your home?” I asked. The teen’s parents could not think of anything, but as an aside they told me their son’s uncle died a few months ago. He was close to this uncle but knew he had been sick for a long time, so his death was not a surprise.
The parents of these children were surprised, even skeptical, that the behaviors which concerned them were the result of grief. The preschooler became fearful that her parents would die if she left them alone, and she did not understand what happens to your head when you die. When you are 4, you are not capable of complex, abstract thinking. On the day of the funeral, it was explained that the family is burying Grandma’s body. “What happened to Grandma’s head?” You can imagine the relief this little girl felt when she learned her Grandma’s head was still attached to her body.
The teenager was testing the limits of living because he was angry that his uncle died and “left him.” Better live it up now, he reasoned, because you can die at any time. Once he was given a safe space to grieve and understand how his uncle’s death affected him, he was able to recognize why he felt compelled to take risks he would normally avoid.
People are beginning to understand that children experience and express grief differently than adults. As a response to these unique needs, Jewish Community Services (JCS) has established the Mitchell David Center for Hope and Healing. With support from The Mitchell David Endowment Fund, this new initiative expands services for the families, children, and teens who have experienced a loved one’s death, with special consideration for families who have lost a child.
There is no timeline for grief. The Mitchell David Center is here to help both the family as a unit and each individual understand their grief and learn to live side by side with both loss and life. The Center addresses the well-being of families and children with a variety of programming such as coping strategies for the holidays, wellness and self-care workshops, art, journaling and gardening projects, as well as traditional support groups.
“Through the Mitchell David Center for Hope and Healing, JCS is able to expand specialized programming for children, whose grief is often overlooked,” says Joan Grayson Cohen, Executive Director of Jewish Community Services. “We are so grateful to the David family for providing us this opportunity as we continue to find ways to address the unmet needs of families and children in our community.”
Donna Kane is a grief specialist for Jewish Community Services.
Through a variety of groups, programs and services, JCS Grief Counselors offer support, guidance, comfort, and hope to people of all ages who are bereaved and trying to cope with the death of someone important in their lives. To learn more about JCS Grief Services, visit jcsbalt.org/griefsupport or call 410-466-9200.