SPRINGFIELD — She's only 8, but Kindelle Creach knows how to help someone mourn.
So when a classmate lost her mom, Kindelle reached out.
"I talked to (her) about what it's like. I say, 'It's going to be OK. Just go to Group (at Lost & Found) and they will help you,'" Kindelle said.
Kindelle and her brother Cameron, 11, lost their dad, Dwane, three years ago and started going to Lost & Found Grief Center, a place for bereaved children and families in Springfield.
"Before I came to Lost & Found, I was lost. I was quiet. ... When I came to Lost & Found ... I found my happiness," Cameron said.
One in nine children experience the death of a parent before age 20, according to statistics from the nonprofit. But the grief process for children is different, and often adults don't know how to help children cope.
"The difficult thing for children is their grief goes on and on, and as they develop cognitively they have new understandings of the loss," said Karen Scott executive director of Lost & Found. "When they are 5 they might not have voiced much, but now they hit adolescence and it's a big deal they don't have a dad. Our society doesn't understand how long grieving goes on, and they expect children to go on and get back into the routine."
That's one reason Lost & Found hosted a poster contest for kids as part of Children's Grief Awareness Day, recognized Thursday. The national movement started in Pennsylvania to bring attention to children's grief and the need to support them during the process. It's observed the third Thursday of every November (one week before Thanksgiving), because the holidays are particularly hard for bereaved families.
Cameron won the middle school category for his poster illustrating sad dark clouds on one side and happy bright sunshine on the other.
"Holidays are very difficult. Major stress," said Kindelle and Cameron's mom, Collette Creach.
When Angelia Ham's 14-year-old son, Kenny, died in June, 2010, she didn't know how to cope with her loss, let alone her children's pain.
Kenny collapsed and died almost instantly from a rare, undiagnosed heart condition. He left behind two siblings: Kya, who was 6, and Elijah, who was 4.
"Elijah was angry, very, very angry. Kya was more withdrawn, worried about mom and dad and how they were feeling. She couldn't talk about it. She tried to shut it down. (Children) don't have the language or the words to put to their emotions. Even as adults, we don't have the words to describe the pain. (Kenny), being the older brother, was the center of their universe and their hero," Ham said.
Kya didn't want to attend Lost & Found, but after talking to Karen Scott, she agreed to give it a try.
"On our way home, I asked Kya, 'What do you think?' and she said, 'I can't wait to go back,'" Ham recalled. "It makes me tear up just thinking about it. She found a place where other kids could articulate how they feel. It was a safe place. She didn't have to worry about her mom or dad hurting. It normalized it for her, so she didn't feel like she was the only kid going through something really hard."
Lost & Found serves children ages 3 to 18 who have lost a parent, sibling or primary caregiver. Children come to group sessions twice a month, and there are other sessions for young adults and parents, too.
Cameron and Kindelle say it helps them to interact with kids who know what it's like to lose a parent.
As a parent, Collette Creach said it helps her to gauge if what her children are experiencing is normal and to learn how other parents have dealt with it.
Through Lost & Found, the Hams also have learned how to help their children.
"We had to learn to be intentional in talking about it. ... We had to learn how to read their signals," Ham said.
The holidays can be particularly hard for families experiencing grief, said Scott, executive director of Lost & Found.
Even so, traditions are important to children, so don't try to skip them.
"It's a mistake to say to children 'we can't do Christmas this year,' because for the children, they want to say 'I am still here,'" she said.
She offers these tips to families:
- Don't ignore the fact that your loved one won't be there. Sit down as a family and talk about the approaching holidays and how to handle them. What is each person comfortable with?
- It's important to acknowledge the missing loved one and honor them. To do this, you can light a candle in their memory, buy an angel to represent them, write down special memories and read them aloud as a family. Talk about the good times.
- Some families want to continue old traditions; for others, that is too painful. Decide what you want to do and brainstorm some new traditions the family might try.