People would ask 11-year-old Deya Sanchez what was wrong, but she didn’t want to make them feel bad. So she didn’t tell them.
Deya’s beloved aunt had died unexpectedly and sometimes when she thought about this, she felt sick. One day, she told her teacher she didn’t feel well and explained why. The conversation led to an invitation to join a new support group for grieving students.
“I said, ‘Will it help me?’ ” recalled Deya, a sixth-grader at Schenectady’s Oneida Middle School.
The answer: It could. Deya decided to join. There were about 10 students in the group. All of them had lost someone close.
“They all had problems, like I did,” Deya said. Before, she felt like she was the only person in school struggling with questions and feelings about death. “I thought something like that had only happened to me,” she said.
The program at Oneida Middle School was facilitated by Community Hospice’s school outreach program, launched several years ago at six schools in Albany and Troy. Last fall, Community Hospice sponsored support groups in four Schenectady schools: Oneida, Van Corlaer Elementary, Elmer Avenue Elementary and Schenectady High School.
Community Hospice has long offered support groups and activities for grieving children and teenagers through its Wave Riders Program. But these programs are held at a half-dozen Community Hospice sites throughout the Capital Region, and a careful review revealed that some of the youths most in need of services — low-income, urban children and teenagers — were slipping through the cracks. Many of these children, staff realized, lacked the transportation to travel to Community Hospice’s offices and attend a support group on a regular basis. As a result, most of the youth attending Wave Riders programs tended to be from suburban, middle-to-upper-middle class households.
“We were not serving an underserved population,” said Candice Van Roey, the pediatric bereavement specialist who runs the Wave Riders Program. “We wanted to bring services to children who otherwise would not have access.”
Since 2006, the urban schools program has doubled. Last year, the program served 163 schoolchildren in 15 local schools.
Staff consider these numbers relatively low, and are looking to expand in the hopes of reaching more kids.
“We’re just tipping the iceberg,” said Mary Crea, a bereavement counselor with the Wave Riders Program.
Statistics show that one children in every seven will experience the death of an immediate family member by the age of 10.
There are children in every school who have suffered a loss. But children in the urban schools program are more likely to have experienced a traumatic death such as a murder, suicide or accident, or multiple losses, than their more suburban counterparts, Van Roey said. They are more likely to be affected by gang violence, or have seen close relatives die suddenly of a heart attack.
Lynn Rafalik, director of pupil personnel services for the Schenectady school district, said the district decided to sponsor the support groups after some students experienced deaths in their families over the summer.
The support group approach was new; in the past, the school had worked with such children individually. In order to participate, students needed permission from their parents.
Melanie Battaglioli, a guidance counselor at Oneida Middle School, co-facilitated the support group with Crea.
“It was a wonderful experience,” she said. “I was amazed at how supportive the kids were.” Not all of the deaths, she said, were recent. “We talked about the different stages of grief, and where they were in the grieving process,” she said. The support group helps kids understand that grief is a process everyone goes through, she said.
“They say, ‘I used to be that way,’ or ‘I went into my room and didn’t say anything, too.’ ”
Children who are grieving often struggle in school, Van Roey said. Their grades might drop; they might misbehave, or withdraw from their peers.
They may get depressed and anxious. They often feel isolated — sometimes with good reason. “A lot of times, the schools don’t even know there’s been a death,” she said.
Crea works with children of all ages, and her approach is different depending on the age.
With younger children, such as first- or second- graders, she uses puppets and tells stories.
These children often have very basic questions about death, she said. They might ask what cancer is, and how you catch it. Van Roey said they try to make children understand what death is; young children do not always know that death is permanent.
“We use the right terms,” she said. “A person who died has not just gone to sleep.” Hearing that “can make children afraid to go sleep,” she said.
In the support groups, Crea uses the arts. Children create memory boxes, where they decorate boxes with items that represent the person who died, and illustrate posters.
Teenagers tend to respond to music, though every group is different. One of her groups loved to draw, and so they did a lot of drawing. “For the most part, the groups are set up to be kind of fun,” Crea said.
The kids in the groups often become friends; she recalled two boys who met in a support group, and how they would give each other high fives when they passed each other in the hall.
Children do not express their grief in the same way adults do, but that doesn’t mean they do not grieve, Crea said. “If you’re old enough to love, you’re old enough to grieve,” she said. In the groups, she helps kids develop better coping skills.
They discuss unhealthy and healthy ways of expressing anger, such as screaming or punching a pillow. “We say, ‘What can you do if you feel angry in your feet? You don’t want to kick someone. Maybe you can run.’ ”
They also try to solve problems. In one group, a girl said her friends wouldn’t invite her for sleepovers anymore because she cried and ruined the parties.
“We had the kids problem-solve,” Crea said. “They suggested she call her dad before she went to sleep, or bring her favorite stuffed animal to the party.”
Deya described the support group as “very fun,” and said she’d recommend the program to other students.
One of the things she did was make a memory box dedicated to her aunt. “She died at a young age,” she said. “People asked what she was like. I said she was pretty. I brought in a picture, and I wrote down words that described her. . . . My dad said I was just like her.”
Through the program, “I solved what happened to me,” Deya said.
Community Hospice provides free services for grieving people in seven counties: Albany, Schenectady, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Columbia, Greene and Montgomery.