October 22, 2017

Joy and Grief – Two sides of the coin of life

Posted on 30. May, 2012 by Stephan Helgesen in Social/Cultural

This week I met a woman who runs a center for children’s grief counseling. Her name is Katrina Koehler and she’s been ministering to hundreds of children each year for over ten years at a place called ‘Gerard’s House’ up in Santa Fe.

Most of us push the thought of death as far away from our conscious thoughts as possible, preferring instead to pretend it’s way out there someplace – like a bad tornado that’s swirling around some other community and not on a path of destruction for our town.

I guess that’s only human, but when death strikes our families abruptly like it did for the Sanchez family of Santa Fe back in 1996 after their son, Gerard, died in a car crash, the results are catastrophic, especially for the children of those families affected.

The year 1996 was a particularly bad year for teenage deaths in Santa Fe, with several resulting from auto accidents and others from suicides. The ‘walking wounded’ were the children in the affected families, many of them very young, impressionable youngsters who had never faced tragedy of this magnitude before.

Their brother was gone and wouldn’t ever play video games with them again, or their sister wasn’t around to braid their hair. Maybe their mother or father would no longer tuck them in at night or tell them another bedtime story. It could have been a classmate taken by a swift illness that left the seat in front of them at school forever empty. The pain is excruciating and often confusing.

How do we tell our children about death but more importantly, how do we help them understand their grief and go through their grieving process? That’s the goal of Gerard’s House and what prompted its establishment in 1996.

As I sat on a comfortable sofa in the center, surrounded by the colorful drawings done by grieving children, I saw their grief and pain depicted in many different ways, so I asked Katrina how children experienced such a massive shock like the loss of a parent.

She took a moment, collected her thoughts and seemed to look directly past my eyes into my soul and said calmly that while loss is universal and grieving a natural part of that loss, every single child experiences it differently.

She gestured with her arms around the room and said that this was like a ‘safe house’ for battered emotions, a place where children from the ages of 3 to 21 come together and find safety and get the permission they need to FEEL and DISPLAY their grief.  It was not a place where adults would lay out a six point plan for grief management and expect them to follow it as if it were instructions on building a model airplane.

“No,” she said. “Children need to release their sadness and their pain and even their anger at the unfairness of losing a loved one, and they need to know that they WILL recover and return to joy, eventually.  We choose our ‘companioners’ (volunteer grief counselors) carefully.

We are not here to push children through a clinical regimen. We don’t want them to look good to the outside world but harbor a profound sense of loss on the inside simply because they weren’t shown how to deal with their grief. That is just a recipe for more confusion and more pain when death occurs again.”

My last moments with Katrina were at her memorial wall of remembrance where the photos of deceased Gerard’s House’ children’s parents, brothers and sisters hung proudly, reminding all who walk by them of their special lives, cut short by untimely deaths.

I’m confident their memories will never fade and their sons and daughters, grandchildren, siblings and friends have learned to accept their deaths thanks to the spiritual triage and inherent goodness of people like Katrina and all the volunteers at Gerard’s House.

- Editor: If you’d care to volunteer or to contribute to Gerard’s House, please contact them at: www.gerardshouse.org  Tel. 505/424-1800 or Email: ed@gerardshouse.org

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