by Caitlin Koch
Editor’s Note: There are over 100 organizations in Whatcom County working to provide supportive services to those experiencing chronic poverty and its associated effects: addiction, homelessness, incarceration, mental illness, and unemployment. Whatcom Watch believes these organizations often labor unnoticed by citizens — this column is designed to add daylight to their endeavors. We have contacted the organization appearing in this column and asked them to explain their mission. Because, in challenging times, being inspired and perhaps empowered by the acts of others is more important than ever.
Grief is an inextricable part of the human experience; grief is the price of love. Yet, in much of the western world, there is no place for grief. Grief is often bound by expectations around intensity and duration, and judgement abounds when one’s grief experience does not align with these expectations. For those of us who have paid the price of love, we know that grief has no timeline, that grief will always have a place in our lives. We also know just how incredibly healing it can be to have another human witness our pain, to feel like we belong, and to know that our grief has a place. But what does it really look like for grief to have a place?
Cheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, authors of “Option B,” tell a wrenching and powerful story about collective pain, and the healing that can come from holding one another in grief. Sandberg’s husband, Dave, died suddenly while they were on vacation. Their children were in second and fourth grades. She writes, “When we arrived at the cemetery, my children got out of the car and fell to the ground, unable to take another step. I lay on the grass, holding them as they wailed. Their cousins came and lay down with us, all piled up in a big sobbing heap with adult arms trying in vain to protect them from their sorrow.”
Sandberg told her children, “This is the second worst moment of our lives. We lived through the first and we will live through this. It can only get better from here.” She then started singing a song she knew from childhood, “Oseh Shalom,” a prayer for peace. She writes, “I don’t remember deciding to sing or how I picked this song. I later learned that it is the last line of the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for mourning, which may explain why it poured out of me. Soon all the adults joined in, the children followed, and the wailing stopped.” Sandberg and her children were reminded in that moment that they were not alone in their darkness and that their grief had a place.
Where Grief Has a Place
Our TreeHouse serves as a loving, healing community for children, youth, and families to grieve. Through peer support groups, provision of school-based support, and referrals to other community resources, we strive to ensure that grief has a place. Equitable and inclusive service provision is central to our mission, and we intentionally strive to meet the needs of vulnerable, oppressed, and underserved populations in our community. Providing services at no cost to program participants, Our TreeHouse is the sole organization providing children’s grief support services in Whatcom County.
Our biweekly support groups for children, teens, and young adults incorporate elements of various therapeutic modalities, including art, music, and drama. Concurrent groups for parents/guardians provide an opportunity for those caring for grieving children and teens to receive social and emotional support and learn how to support the youth in their care. In addition to support groups, Our Treehouse provides workshops and interventions to support school communities after a death. Specifically, we offer time-limited support groups for children and teens in schools; provide on-site support for children, teens, and staff following the death of a student or staff member; and offer presentations for teachers/school counselors/administrators on various topics related to children’s grief.
Grief and Covid
According to an article published by JAMA Pediatrics in February 2021, more than 37,300 children under age 17 have lost at least one parent due to Covid-19, a 20 percent increase in parental loss over a typical year. Early loss significantly alters children’s developmental trajectory, and, without adequate support, bereaved youth are at elevated risk of traumatic grief, depression, poor educational outcomes, and unintentional death or suicide. Sudden parental death can be particularly traumatizing for youth and families. Moreover, Covid-related deaths are occurring at a time of social isolation, institutional strain, and economic hardship, potentially leaving bereaved children without the supports they need.
At Our TreeHouse, we have worked diligently over the last 16 months to offer innovative interventions for grieving youth and families. In March of 2020, we moved our peer support groups to a virtual format and rolled out a private YouTube channel with 1) readings of children’s grief books and facilitated activities that corresponded with the stories; and 2) psychoeducational webinars for adult caregivers of grieving children and teens. Several months later, we added monthly activity kit deliveries, one-on-one phone calls, moderated online chat groups for teens and caregivers of grieving children, and publication of monthly newsletters for participating families. Together, these interventions have helped to facilitate a sense of connection and belonging among otherwise isolated youth and families.
Work With Educational Service Districts
In addition to adapting our center-based services, we have worked closely with Educational Service Districts in Washington state to develop school-based programming. In the last six months, we have provided grief education for over 250 educators and school administrators across the state and have collaborated with individual school districts to respond to tragedies impacting their school communities.
Grief is not limited to death-related loss. In our current contextual climate, grief is a part of our daily existence. From the loss of connection with others to drastic changes in our daily routines, we have all been affected by Covid-19 and the public health measures meant to keep us safe. While the impact of compounding loss often goes unrecognized in our society, the experience and its implications are very real.
Over the last year and a half, Our TreeHouse has worked to bring grief awareness and education to our broader community, to normalize the grief experience, and to serve as a resource and respite for grieving individuals and families. From participating in multidisciplinary community panel discussions, facilitating workshops for educators and mental health professionals, mentoring adjudicated youth, initiating social media campaigns, and creating physical spaces in the community for people to honor their losses, we have strived to ensure that grief has continued to have a place.
Our recent experiences with grieving members of our community have highlighted the far-reaching ripples of loss that accompany death during a pandemic; we have also repeatedly witnessed the deleterious effects of isolation on resilience and post-loss growth. Concurrently, our experiences with grieving youth and families in the last 16 months have validated the profound impacts of connection and community in the healing process, and the importance of ensuring that grief has a place. It’s not just about creating a physical space, as we have learned over the last year, but about creating connection and community, welcoming and celebrating diversity, and meeting people where they are. It is also about holding hope for one another. As Cheryl Sandberg told her children as they were burying their father, “It can only get better from here.”
Caitlin Koch, MS, MSW, CCLS, LSWAIC, has an innate passion for journeying with children and families through their grief, as well as empowering the professionals who support them. In addition to her role as executive director at Our TreeHouse, Caitlin has a private counseling practice in Bellingham.