I have often said that my work with Comfort Zone Camp and Hello Grief allows me the opportunity to meet the most amazing people, and share in the most amazing stories. This was especially true last week, when I attended this year’s National Alliance for Grieving Children  (NAGC) convention in Boston, MA. Along with three Comfort Zone coworkers and one Comfort Zone Healing Circle Leader, I spent a few days in the company of counselors, foundation leaders, and bereavement professionals from across the US.
This year’s convention was kicked off with an insightful keynote speech from Dr. Kenneth Doka . Dr. Doka is a Professor of Gerontology at the Graduate School of The College of New Rochelle and Senior Consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America. He is widely considered to be a leading expert on grief counseling and therapy, writing and speaking on matters of grief, loss, and validation. To say that I was excited to hear him speak would be a huge understatement. Dr. Doka, of course, did not disappoint. He delivered a message a keynote entitled “Helping Bereaved Children and Teens: New Understandings.” He presented interesting new findings, including the impact of online media, social pressures, and new family structures on childhood and teen grief. Specifically, he reminded each of us to be flexible in our approaches to supporting grieving children and teens. What we plan for and expect are not necessarily the paths that will be most healing for any individual child or teen. A great reminder that each young person we work with is a unique individual, with an authentic story that we must take time to learn and support.
Following Dr. Doka’s keynote, I was able to sit in on a session by Rebecca Hobbs-Lawrence of the Dougy Center. This session was focused on “Supporting a child with Developmental Disabilities in Their Grief,” and helped me to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by grief professionals serving the developmentally disabled. Rebecca encouraged each of us to view a developmentally disabled child not as a combination of symptoms and challenges, but rather as a grieving child, who also happened to be faced with additional barriers to healing. She further advised that we take the time to help these children develop their own “language of loss” in order to allow them each to find ways to tell their own story. Such a wonderful concept, and so clearly presented.
After a tasty lunch, it was time for me to present on HelloGrief. I was so excited to be able to share this wonderful resource with a room full of about 50 bereavement leaders from across the country. I discussed traditional social media sites, and encouraged debate around the pros and cons of using these sites for grief support. Focusing on the safety and support of an online community dedicated to grief discussions, I was able to walk attendees through the entire site, from profile set up to forum group participation. At the beginning of the session, many of the people had questions and concerns about using an online forum for grief discussion. After an hour and a half of wonderful conversation, I asked simply “Who is ready to sign up and get your center’s teens involved when you get home?” To my delight, a roomful of hands went up into the air! Throughout the rest of the conference, I continued to be approached by people who wanted more information, and were hoping to get their organizations linked in to HelloGrief. It was a great experience, and a wonderful way to share such an excellent resource with the greater bereavement community.
Michelle Post, of One Legacy, delivered an excellent session on self-care, titled “What Have You Done for YOU Lately?” I had the pleasure of meeting Michelle at last year’s NAGC conference, and she has since gotten involved with Comfort Zone as one of our Healing Circle Leaders in California. In true Michelle style, she presented a fun and informative session geared towards helping grief workers to stay energized, stay committed, and prevent emotional burnout. She asked the important question “What have you done for yourself in the last year, month, week, and day to take care of yourself?” As front-line bereavement professionals, many of us bear heavy emotional loads, and can benefit greatly from a little TLC. Michelle took us though a few relaxation and reenergizing exercises, including the now-famous Comfort Zone Sizzle, inspired by one of Comfort Zone’s very own campers!
We were very fortunate to have Maggie Nick, long time Healing Circle Leader and new Comfort Zone employee present on “Including Children with Trauma Losses in Group Discussions.” Maggie first led the group in painting an imaginary picture of a “typical” family. We discussed what a typical day looked like, who took the kids to school, what homework the kids had, and who handled bills, etc. We then recreated that picture, assuming that the mother had died. Maggie walked us through a few scenarios, and helped the group to recognize the many challenges, small and large, that a family faces after the loss of a parent. The group then discussed some ways that children who experienced traumatic losses may feel isolated, even within a supportive grief group. We then looked for ways to include these children in discussions in ways that could help them to feel validated.
More good fortune for Comfort Zone came when Marianne Esolen, another valued Healing Circle Leader, presented on “Community Building Strategies for Camps, Groups, and Programs.” Having a great deal of experience working with both grieving children and children experiencing serious illness, Marianne shared her thoughts on the importance of building connections and a sense of community within any group environment. Attendees were encouraged to take a look at traditional team-building and community-building activities, and adapt those activities towards children and teens facing grief and loss. Understanding that children and teens are served in camp, support group, school, and other sessions, Marianne helped her attendees to develop and plan for activities that could be geared towards a variety of settings and group types. As we all look for ways to help each child feel included and validated, these techniques can certainly help move us towards those goals.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the many familiar faces from last year, and the bevy of new friends and contacts I made at this year’s NAGC. Chris Park from The New York Life Foundation  was in attendance to celebrate NYL’s sponsorship of this year’s conference. This was was another wonderful show of the commitment NYL has made to supporting grieving children. NAGC board members mingled throughout the conference, giving each attendee numerous chances to feel truly connected to the heart of the organization. I could list a hundred names, and not scratch the surface of the vast list of dedicated individuals who shared these few days of connections and growth.
With all of the time and energy each of us puts into our work, it is truly wonderful to spend a few days soaking up that same energy from such a rich and diverse group of individuals. I can’t think of another venue in which so many great ideas and programs come together to support a common goal. And I can’t think of any work I would rather do than the work I am fortunate to do for Comfort Zone Camp and Hello Grief.
To the many, many kind and insightful individuals who joined this year’s NAGC conference – thank you. Your passion for your work has added fuel to my own passion, and left me looking forward to next year’s conference already!
Photo Credit.