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Helping Children Learn Life's Toughest Lesson

Program lets grieving children come to grips with death of a loved one

FRIDAY, Oct. 18, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- "We're not here to fix anything. This isn't like orthopedic surgery where you break your arm, the surgeon fixes your arm, in six weeks you're healed and in a year it's a memory."

The speaker is Robert Ludwig, director of the Healing Center for Grieving Children. Founded in 1996 to provide no-fee services for children who had experienced a death in the family, it is part of Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y. And it's one of a handful of such programs in the region.

"We're at the opposite end of health care," Ludwig says. "There's nothing we can fix. We can't change what has happened. Our role is to help you manage the pain, to understand what has happened."

Most of the children in the program have lost a parent, but some have also lost siblings, grandparents or other relatives to illness, homicide, suicide, lightning, car crashes, house fires or unknown causes.

There are five children in the program now who lost either a parent or a sibling in the World Trade Center attack on Sept. 11, 2001.

Grieving the loss of a loved one isn't easy, no matter what age you are. But children often have additional difficulties.

The surviving child becomes the "secondary victim," Ludwig says. Sometimes there's a stigma associated with the death, expressed when the children are teased by their peers because their family is different.

Some children aren't told the truth about how a parent or sibling died, so they have to spend extra time sorting out the story and getting to the truth.

Children who lost someone on 9/11 have even more issues to grapple with.

"It's a different kind of thing; we've never been attacked before in this city," Ludwig says. "It's an unknown."

One 8-year-old at the center said, "I know my Daddy died, but I don't know how he died. I know he was in that building and I know what happened to the building, but I don't know what happened to him."

The child's father was a waiter at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the top of the Trade Center's north tower.

His experience is obviously different from, say, a child who cared for his father for eight months before he died. "It's the reason people want to go back to the [World Trade Center] site, to have some sense of what happened," Ludwig says.

Whatever their particular circumstances, the children at the Healing Center, all of whom are from New York City, can stay with the program as long as they want. The "average" length of time, however, seems to be about a year and a half.

During that time, the children meet once a week from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Their caregivers meet concurrently in a separate space.

Grouped in clusters of eight to 10 with peers of similar ages, the children begin with a "talking circle." It also includes volunteer facilitators and trained counselors, with everyone sitting on floor pillows and passing the "talking stick."

The ritual calls for whoever has the talking stick to say their name along with the name of the person who died in their family. Though the kids don't have to say anything at all, "most do and eventually all do," Ludwig says.

Once the introduction is over, the child can talk about anything he or she likes.

The kids next turn to an activity related to the topic of loss, and then it's on to the play room, where dressing up as hospital personnel is a favorite game. "All kids who are grieving have some contact with doctors, emergency technicians, et cetera," Ludwig says.

An unusual part of the program is the matted "volcano room," where kids go, two at a time, with a volunteer facilitator to don boxing gloves, punch a punching bag or throw a basketball with all the force they can muster.

"A lot of children use it in a very physical way to express their pain," Ludwig says. "They can whack at things, box, tumble. There are stuffed mannequins they can pound the hell out of."

Another key to the program are the volunteers who come from all walks of life and work directly with the children.

"It's a great perspective," says Jeff Gonzalez, a Manhattan stylist for magazine and photo shoots who has been volunteering at the center for three years. "A lot of times in my work, people think that whatever product they're selling is the most important thing in the world, and I get caught up in the idea.?

"Then I go out to Brooklyn every week, and it puts things in perspective," he says. "My parents died when I was 11, and I wished I had something like this when I was a kid. The program is about kids supporting kids."

The comfort of knowing you're not alone is a big part of the program's success.

"The magic is that the kids do the work," Ludwig says. "An 8-year-old comes into the group, he thinks he's the only kid in the world whose mom died of AIDS. But he finds out there are nine other kids that are in the same mess you're in. There's enormous support."

When a child says he or she is ready to leave, the center holds a farewell party and the child is given a suede bag, with his or her name on it, which contains three stones. Two of the stones are polished, and one is still rough.

"The rough one represents the part of you that's still grieving and might always grieve, and that's OK," Gonzalez says. "The kids are made aware that they can always come back."

What To Do

For more on how children grieve, visit the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. For more information about the Healing Center for Grieving Children, click here or call 718-780-1899.

SOURCES: Robert Ludwig, M.Ed., M.A., director, Healing Center for Grieving Children of Long Island College Hospital, Brooklyn, N.Y., Jeff Gonzalez, volunteer facilitator, Healing Center for Grieving Children
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