Debbie Horany, counselor at Centennial Elementary School in Edmond, has seen the fear and stress on faces of children who have lost someone close to them. The youngest ones don’t understand. They believe death is only temporary. The older ones fight against talking about their loss, not wanting to open such a vulnerable part of themselves to strangers. They all feel scared and lost in the whirlwind of changes.
“All these kids have to deal with separation issues of a significant nature, which changes their happiness levels at home or school,” said Horany. “We have Calm Waters come in for peer support groups, and it’s been so instrumental in helping our students.
Calm Waters is an Oklahoma City-based grief support center for children and their families whose lives have been affected by death, divorce or trauma. The nonprofit provides a place for children and their parents to share experiences through age-appropriate support groups and grief curriculum. Free support groups are open to ages 3 to 18 and their parents or guardians, as well as to young adults ages 19 to 25.
“Calm Waters began 19 years ago to provide grief services for children and families,” says Barbara Butner, executive director. “It was founded at the Baptist Hospital Outpatient Services because there was no place that offered this kind of support for children.” Since then, thousands of families and kids have gone through the organization’s curriculum. In 2010, 342 Edmond children and family members attended support groups at Calm Waters and in their schools, says Butner. “This allows families to come together as a unit to work through their grief.”
In 1992, 9-year-old Jason Woodruff lost his father, who used to take the young boy on sailing trips. Jason says his father would navigate the boat into a cove during storms when he and his father sailed. In the stormy times following the loss of his dad, Jason says he longed for safety and peace. Jason’s mother Sondra realized Oklahoma County lacked a service for grieving children. “She partnered with Charlotte Lankard and the Baptist Medical Center Outpatient Services after watching a television show about a grief support service in Portland,” says Butner. “Calm Waters started out offering free support groups for children who had suffered a death of a loved one. We then saw the need for a divorce support group for children. Now, we offer both.”
Grief in children manifests differently than in adults, says Maribeth Gavin, program director at Calm Waters. “For the little ones, adjusting to the change is a big issue. Are they involved in the funeral? Is it appropriate for them to be involved?” she says. “Sometimes, kids will forget their grief for a time. They’ll run and play and laugh with their friends, but then it comes back to them.”
For the youngest clients, death doesn’t seem permanent. “They keep asking when daddy is coming home,” says Natalie West, program coordinator for Calm Waters. “At age 3 or 4, they see death as reversible, not permanent. They suffer bad dreams and worry about monsters. They have a more magical thinking about death, but they want to know what happened to their loved one.” Older children become fixated on death and sorrow. West says this sometimes scares parents, but it’s a normal process for that age.
“The support groups at Calm Waters focus on topics. We have a 16-week curriculum that runs from August to May. In every support group the same topic is discussed during that week.” Topics include identifying feelings, dealing with anger and working through changes. While parents discuss the topic in their own support setting, children are brought to rooms made to look like school rooms. They play games, do arts and crafts or watch movies related to the topic. “We incorporate what they’ve seen or done into the discussion that night,” West says. “For the older teens, we use multimedia and music. Each activity or group is developmentally broken up to be age-appropriate.”
During the 16 weeks, West starts to see changes. Teens open up, families become comfortable talking about pain and both children and parents come to understand they aren’t alone in their grief. “For some families, the process takes six months. For others, it may be two years,” says West. “The grief journey is completely different for each family, for each child.”
In 2000, the center reached out to schools in Oklahoma County, offering support groups during school hours for children who were grieving. More than 300 school counselors and educators were trained by Calm Waters staff to recognize symptoms in their students. “Edmond and Putnam City were the first districts included,”
In the schools, counselors and teachers identify which children are affected by loss. A letter explaining how Calm Waters can help is sent home to parents, who can then request that their child is enrolled in a six-week, in-school support group session. “By the end of the six weeks, they’ve bonded and they realize they aren’t alone,” says West. “They form friendships and trust one another with feelings. They are
willing to talk.”
Calm Waters continues to grow, from having served 47 children and parents in 1992 to more than 2,800 in 2010. Expanded services include court-approved Parenting through Divorce seminars and grief training for volunteers and educators. Volunteers are always needed. For more information please call
841-4800, or visit www.calmwaters.org.