In the months after his older brother’s sudden death, J.J. Jamison, then 14, began having angry outbursts at school, throwing things, yelling and running out of the classroom unprovoked.
At home, he would slam doors. And he was awake at night for hours. His mom, Trish Ellis, knew her son could use some help with his grief, but traditional counseling wasn’t a good option for J.J., who has Down syndrome.
The Eatonville family found what it needed at BRIDGES: A Center for Grieving Children at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma. The center provides grief support programs for families with kids ages 4 to 18 who have experienced the death of a parent or sibling.
Children grieve differently than adults, often extending the process over the course of their development. For example, a 4-year-old may not fully comprehend a death or may link it to something he said or did. That child may then reprocess his grief as he gets older and understands more.
Heather Neal, BRIDGES’ supervisor of grief and loss services, said families often don’t know how to support or talk with their kids about death.
“Bridges is a chance for them to come together, share with each other, and learn from each other while doing grief work as a family,” Neal said.
Being able to process grief in a healthy, supportive environment is important. Unresolved grief can lead to developmental challenges and depression, Neal said.
The program divides children into support groups based on their age and the nature of their loss, such as a parent or sibling death. There are groups for children who have experienced traumatic loss from a homicide or suicide, and for kids who have a family member currently experiencing a serious illness.
Parents also meet in support groups with other parents or caregivers.
Trained volunteers lead the groups. And the activities vary depending on the groups’ age. All ages work on hands-on projects such as arts and crafts. Older kids may spend more time writing and talking.
Families in the program meet every other week. Ellis and the BRIDGES staff placed J.J. in a group of slightly younger children, which was a better developmental fit for him.
J.J.’s brother Michael died in a car accident in September 2007 at the age of 17. He was not only J.J.’s sibling, but also a protector and friend.
Only three years apart, the boys definitely had their spats. But Michael was always the first to tell people not to mess with his younger brother. He’d take J.J. out with him, and Michael’s friends soon adopted J.J. as one of their own.
J.J.’s first weeks at BRIDGES were tough. He didn’t talk much about Michael’s death and he was reluctant to go. He didn’t want to leave his mom and once, he ran out of a support group meeting.
But as the months progressed, he did too.
“He really learned to talk about things, get his feelings out there and explain what was going on in his head,” Ellis said.
J.J. began to look forward to BRIDGES. He made friends there. And he began to open up. At the end of each meeting, the kids can get in front of the larger group and share what they did.
“At first, he would never go up,” Ellis said. “But at the end, he would get up there and share what he did that night for Michael. He became one of the other kids through the process.”
Ellis also found support through the program, taking comfort in hearing from others who had similar experiences.
“Sometimes it was really hard to be there,” Ellis said. “But it’s the one place you could open up and cry and be yourself and not have people say ‘why haven’t you moved on?’”
Families can attend BRIDGES for as long as they need. Since it opened in 1988, the program has served more than 1,450 children from more than 1,000 families.
Ellis and J.J. attended through May 2010. Though they were unsure about moving on from BRIDGES, they were ready to try.
“It’s like leaving a life raft,” Ellis said. “It’s a little scary, but we know that we can always come back.”
(Pictured above Michelle Schuyleman, Darren Wenz and Heather J. Neal. Photo by Dane Meyer.)