Once called the forgotten mourners, children were previously “protected” from the harshness of death.
Thankfully, according to child and youth grief counsellor and longtime social worker Susan Kast, that is not the case anymore.
“It wasn’t that long ago that children were not to attend funerals, that we took down pictures of the deceased and we no longer talked about them,” said Kast who works through the Penticton and District Hospice Society. “Sometimes kids were just medicated through the experience, it’s not unusual for adults now who went through that who still have lingering unresolved grief because it was never openly acknowledged ‘we don’t talk about death, we don’t do that here.’
“It can create fear of death and I think it can also, if it has that lingering unresolved pain, can also be the source of unhealthy coping strategies lifelong. I look at really good grief support for children as preventative, mental health care.”
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The free service aimed directly at kids is believed to be the only one of its kind in the South Okanagan and has been offered without referral since 2013.
“When I was working on my Master’s degree I specially chose to focus on children’s grief with the plan in getting it happening in the community. I recognized there was a need here for support specific to grieving children,” said Kast. “The children that I work with most often it’s a family member that they’ve lost, either a parent or a brother or a sister.
“It is life changing, it’s losing the person but it’s also losing the way their family used to be and kids often don’t have the language to express all that they’re feeling, all that they’re experiencing and are also living within a family that’s grieving.”
To help kids, especially the very young, she makes sure parents are capable of dealing with their own grief to be able to understand and help their children; “One of the biggest indicators of how well a child will do in the long term is based on how well their parent is coping.”
In addition to the one-on-one counselling, Kast also has two monthly support groups for younger and older youth where they can interact with others in a similar situations.
“When they’ve had such a big loss in their life they often will feel they’re the only ones this has happened to,” said Kast. “They may not understand that other people have lost as well so there’s often that sense of feeling different from their peers, they want their life to be normal.
“One of the most beneficial things about the groups is it is a place where kids come together with other kids that they know understand. It really reduces that sense of isolation, that sense of feeling there is somehow something wrong with them.”
According to the counsellor, death by suicide can be one of the most challenging cases to help children through.
“Its a devastating loss that really forever changes a family. I certainly recognize the need for more services that support families, that support children and youth mental health, really to prevent these tragedies from happening,” said Kast.
In general, how she approaches a child depends on the age and understanding but always begins with establishing a level of trust.
“You can see that in their eyes when they first come in the counselling office, ‘Oh no, is the lady going to ask me questions about how I feel?’” said Kast, adding kids never have to answer questions they don’t want to.
It’s that directness she gets from her young clients, who unlike adults don’t apologize when they start to cry, she likes most about working with children.
“There is a developmental process in terms of understanding death when a child is two, three, four years old they don’t understand the permanence of death, It’s like this person has died and they say ‘OK, but can I go see them,’” said Kast. “It’s not really until they are about six, seven they start understanding the permanence of death but they also might still have that magical thinking of somehow to bring them back.
“I don’t see it as my role to challenge that fine line but I’m also not going to hold them to false beliefs so I might sort of gently challenge them.”
The Hospice Society, which receives no government funding and is entirely reliant on donations also operates Moog and Friends Hospice House and oversees the downtown bereavement resource centre where Kast works.
“We had adult and child counselling before but we had to stop,” said Lan Thi Bray, one of the society’s board of directors. “But absolutely there is a need for this service which is why we started again. We live in a time when more adults are coming to terms with grief so they can support their children but we still need someone to companion that.”
For Kast, while the work is very challenging and involves kids who are struggling through possibly the most difficult time in their lives, there is a silver lining to the job.
“I think it is when the absolute worst has happened to a family and there is so much hurt and pain involved, just to know that my support and involvement can make things just a little bit better, it is satisfying to see the difference that the work can make in children and that it’s not going to be just for now, but lifelong,” she said.
For more information about any of the programs available through the bereavement resource centre, call 250-490-1107.