Me Too! helps kids, often overlooked, cope with tragedy of losing a loved one Lessons of grief

October 31, 1993|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

The children come tousled from soccer practice, tanned from Ocean City. From all the carefree haunts of summer they come, brandishing their innocence as if it were a banner.

They're skinned-kneed, everyday kids -- struggling to cope with a grim intruder into their fragile lives.

"Welcome to our group," says the woman standing before them. "This is a very special group. It is different from any other group you have gone to before."

Sponsored by the Stella Maris hospice care program, the group is for children grieving over the death of a loved one. It's called Me Too!, in the sense that a child, in death's numbing wake, is often overlooked but silently cries out: I count, too!

These 10 children attended six weekly sessions of 90 minutes each this summer at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Towson. A Sun reporter observed as they drew pictures, passed around photographs, talked about feelings and tried to understand their tormenting loss.

"When they come into this group, they think they're the only child in the world this has happened to," says Allyson Nugent, the vivacious social worker and therapist who runs Me Too! "It's important for them to know that other children are going through the same thing . . . that grief is normal and natural."

Mrs. Nugent, 33, runs groups for children ages 5 to 9 and 10 to 14. She also is working with guidance counselors in Baltimore to start groups at city schools for grieving students.

"It's not like you take them to a group when something's wrong," Mrs. Nugent says. "There could be something wrong, but maybe not."

"Kids don't have our vocabulary for loss and grief. They don't know how to express feelings. They can't say, 'Hey Mom, get me to a therapist. I need to talk about this.' "

After Mrs. Nugent's group for 5-to 9-year-olds ended last summer, the parents of three children sat at home and discussed their child's encounter with death -- in each case the first one. They hope that their story, they say, will help other adults in shock over a death, pondering how to deal with the children.

"All this is like fighting the way we were raised; we didn't talk about it," says Ernie Glinka, whose daughter attended the group during last summer and whose son is attending now. "But this has helped us know what to look for and how to react to certain things. We have a resource now if something happens in the future. We're not in this by ourselves."

Deanna James had just flicked on CNN and sat down to feed Kathryn, her 4 1/2 -month-old daughter, when she heard the last words of a news report: " . . . went down in the Potomac River today."

"And I knew what it was," she says.

She knew it was her husband's V-22 Osprey -- the experimental aircraft that takes off like a helicopter and flies like a plane -- that had been expected to land July 20, 1992, at the Marine Corps air station at Quantico, Va. It crashed into the Potomac, killing the seven people aboard. Maj. Brian J. James was the co-pilot. He was 34, a Marine test pilot, candidate to become an astronaut, husband and father of four children younger than 10.

'I miss daddy'

Christy, the oldest, had turned 9 two days earlier. The family was waiting to celebrate until her father returned. It took three days to find his body.

Ms. James made sure all four children, including the baby, went to the funeral.

"I knew one day she'd ask," Ms. James says of Kathryn, who's now 20 months old. "And I wanted to be able to say she was there."

In the months after the funeral, Christy, now 10, began throwing temper tantrums like a 2-year-old. Erin, now 7, clammed up completely. And Kyle, now 5, wallowed in confusion.

"All of them were so different," their mother says. "It opened my eyes; for as young as they are, grief is such an individual thing."

Ms. James, 34, who lives in Bel Air, sought help from a priest. The priest referred her to a counselor, and the counselor told her about Me Too! Ms. James enrolled Christy last winter. Then Erin attended in the spring, and Kyle in the summer.

Kyle was 4 when his father died. He buried leftovers in the yard. "Do you eat in heaven?" he wondered.

And he asked: "What happens to people who kill themselves? What's it like when you die?"

Ms. James' brother-in-law asked him one day: "Kyle, are you thinking about killing yourself?"

The boy replied matter-of-factly: "Yes."

"Why?" his uncle asked.

"Because I miss daddy," Kyle said. "I want to see him."

"Well," said the uncle, "people who kill themselves go to hell; they don't go to heaven. So you wouldn't see your daddy."

Kyle dropped the subject.

But it was Christy who worried her mother most. The girl was angry because her mother sold her father's car. She was angry because the family moved from St. Mary's County to Harford County. Ms. James moved to be near her husband's parents, who now live two blocks away.

"She was angry at everything, but mainly at me," Ms. James says. "She didn't want anything to change."

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