Raising Grieving Children

How children can survive the death of a loved one.

Losing A Home

Grieving a home is important.

On June 21 2009 an arsonist set fire to the Main Building of the Dougy Center in Portland Ore. This was the third effort to set fire to this building. In spite of all the precautionary efforts taken to prevent this from happening, on the third try whoever did this succeeded in bringing the building to ruin. The Dougy Center is the flagship for programs serving grieving children and adolescents and their families throughout the world. It is the model for the Children's Room in Arlington, MA that I have mentioned on a number of occasions on this blog. As they have grown in their own capacity to provide services to the bereaved families in the Portland, Ore area, helping grieving parents raise grieving children, the center's workers have helped others develop similar programs in their own communities in both the United States and in other parts of the world.

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This program is more than a building. The program is not going to end as the place that housed it from its beginning is gone. But nonetheless the house is part of the program. It may be inanimate but is it really? It provides a framework for what goes on in it, it gives it character and, in its own way, direction. How to mourn the death of such a building? What is lost when a building goes? What was lost are the office files and records, the toys, the art supplies, the games and the books that made up the library. Most of this can be replaced except perhaps for the stories that the files held of the many people served there over the more than 15 years of the Dougy's existence. It may be important to collect stories from people who were there so the past is not lost. Fortunately the fire was on the week-end when no one was in the building.

What do I mourn? How do I mourn. First I wrote a letter of condolence to Donna Schurmann, The Executive Director of the center, a friend and colleague. I was honest about the anger I felt and didn't find polite language to say what I felt. I was also honest that I didn't have any good words that would add anything to comfort her, the staff and all the families the Center served, except that I am here and willing to help. But as I thought about it, while I am sure neither Donna or all the others directly involved in the center need my advice, we do share a mutual respect for each other and so I will share my thoughts anyhow. I am using this blog as a way of doing this. I have come to appreciate that in a building an environment can be created that can embrace you at a time when you feel the world is coming down on you. The bereaved families served by the Center felt a sense of safety in the environment that this house emanated. I sensed this very clearly when I visited more than 10 years ago. The house was what I in New England would call a Victorian House, built to house a large family. I don't know what the technical name is or what name it would have in Portland but it was clearly once someone's home. It had a lived-in feeling which people coming in could indeed sense. They could raid the refrigerator and schmooze in the kitchen eating leftovers. In thinking about this fire it makes no sense that someone would want to hurt the program in this way just as many of the deaths of young parents, young children who come to the house for help, make no sense. But this is what we have to live with. We mourn the familiar, the things we get used to that can give us direction and a sense of place in the world as we must find new ways of living in the world and doing our work. The newspaper articles reporting on the fire talked about the Center as a place where bereaved families receive counseling. That is not quite true. At the Dougy, the bereaved find a place where they meet others who have had a similar experience with whom the can share their stories and learn from each other. This is true for the youngest and for the oldest. These programs are staffed primarily by trained volunteers whose main work is to make it possible, for those who are grieving, to find comfort in the fact that they are not alone. Here they find others with whom to share and here they can learn from each other.

I think it matters what kind of home this program has. It might work in an office building with cold brick walls and a business like atmosphere, it does work in a Church basement but in my opinion it works best in a home like setting with walls to decorate and furniture to put your feet on. In the same way we help children and their families to cope with their loss, to acknowledge what they lost, and to accept their sense of sadness and the disruption in their world by joining together and learning the "tricks of the trade", as Erving Goffman would say we also have to consider what of the past we bring with us. My own thought is that in rebuilding there will be new ways to fix the limitations of the old, maybe the parent's meeting room, the art room, the quiet room should be be in different places, in different relationships to each other but to me what is most important is to keep that home-like, informal quality that existed in the past.

Phyllis R. Silverman, Ph.D., is a Scholar-in-Residence at Brandeis University Women's Studies Research Center.

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