The grieving process looks different for everybody, and many youth come through our doors having lost caregivers, family members or friends. Some of these losses have been a result of violence, making them even more difficult to understand and process. At Mercy Home for Boys & Girls, we help our kids to work through traumatic experiences from their past while also teaching them coping skills they can use for the rest of their lives.
More than Death
Grief is often associated with death, but people go through the grieving process for a multitude of reasons. “I see a lot of kids – they have a caregiver, like a parent or something, whose not really that involved in their life or whose in and out,” said Megan Prahin, a program manager at Mercy Home. “Sometimes, a lot of work in therapy is grieving the parent that they should have been and that you wanted them to be – someone doesn’t have to be passed away for us to feel the loss in our life.”
Megan has been with Mercy Home for almost 10 years and has worked on both our boys and girls campus. She currently oversees therapeutic treatment for Speh Home, which houses boys from 11-14 years-old. She recognizes the dilemma children face when they are battling conflicting emotions about parents who haven’t always been present.
“You deserved a dad who was always around — and how do we grieve that, and move to this point of acceptance like, ‘that is what it is, and it’s hard, and you deserve to have every mixed feeling you have about that.’” Megan said. “But then, how do we build your family of choice and how do we recognize the other supports you have in your life and not let that just weigh you down so much every day.”
What Grieving Looks Like
When people are going through the grieving process, they may seem like a completely different person. Their mood changes, their behavior changes and their outlook on life changes.
“You see a lot of those typical grief behaviors — the anger, the lashing out; kind of holding all of these feelings, but not being able to deal with them, so you project them onto all this other stuff.” Megan said. “I see a lot of hopelessness — when you feel like people have left your life — ‘well, nothing matters now.’”
One of the most common behaviors associated with grieving is denial. It can be hard to understand that someone is not in our lives anymore and we want to convince ourselves that they will be back. Coming to terms with loss and reaching a point of acceptance can be extremely difficult, and might take a long time to achieve.
“I also see for some kids some of that denial, they come here like, ‘yeah, that happened to me — so? Bad stuff happens to everyone, I’m fine.’” Megan said. “And sometimes the treatment work in those situations is building up their coping skills so they can handle when you kind of unpack it. But giving them permission and the space to be like, ‘it’s ok to feel something about that. I know you’ve been surrounded by a lot of people who have gone through a lot, but you still deserve to grieve.’”
Strength in Numbers
Deconstructing the norm can be difficult. Kids sometimes want to adopt a ‘tough guy’ attitude when they feel that everyone around them is enduring the same struggles. They think it’s no big deal.
When grieving a loss, however, sharing feelings with others who are going through the same thing can be the best form of release.
Our process of healing at Mercy Home entails a mix of individual therapy, family therapy and group therapy. Our group therapy sessions involve kids organized by age. But if we realize that many of our kids are struggling with the same issue, we will bring them together to talk about their experiences.
“Sometimes it’s nice to bring them together across age groups and programs to realize a lot of people are struggling with what they are,” Megan said. “It kind of helps them understand it’s not just them, and some of the times those groups have been very, very powerful.”
Teaching Good Goodbyes
When we welcome youth into Mercy Home, we try to provide a safe and structured place for them to heal from their past and prepare for the future. Yet the world outside of our walls is unpredictable, and there are some things we cannot protect them from experiencing.
Sometimes our youth suffer the loss of someone close to them while in our care. Though we cannot stop the grieving process, our staff and our kids are there to support each other in times of need. Whether it is attending a wake, aiding a family with funeral arrangements or organizing a memorial service of our own – our kids know they can count on their Mercy family in times of need.
While loss in our lives is often unexpected and sudden, there are some instances in which we can prepare for change. Our youth develop close relationships with staff members during their time at Mercy Home, and sometimes our staff move on to new departments or to new jobs. These situations can be difficult, but letting go and moving on to new things is a part of life.
“There’s going to be grief and transition and loss that happens in their life that’s out of our control, and it’s going to be out of their control,” Megan said. “So everything here we try to use as a practice opportunity, so when that stuff does happen — how do we practice doing it in a good way? How do we have good goodbyes and meaningful rituals around loss and transition? Which I think is some of the really good work we do here, which is huge for kids because we can’t buffer all pain for them for the rest of their lives, but we can teach them how to handle it in a way that is going to be healthy.