The Dougy Center

The mission of The Dougy Center is to provide support in a safe place where children, teens, young adults and their families grieving a death can share their experiences.
Feb 28, 2017

The Importance of Self Care While Grieving

Self-care Heart
Self-care Heart

Even though grief is a full spectrum experience that affects us on multiple levels, the emotional impact tends to get the most press, with descriptions of people experiencing sadness, anger, and isolation. The physical, cognitive, and behavioral effects can often come as a shock, leaving people confused and overwhelmed by reactions that aren’t as well known. For many people, grief interrupts their sleep, appetite, ability to concentrate, and physical health. This is why it’s so important to cultivate care and support that addresses each of these realms. At The Dougy Center, we provide children and teens with a variety of outlets for expression including music, art, dramatic play, and physical activity. If you are grieving, or know someone who is, it can be helpful to think through how to best nurture the body and mind.

Here are three basic categories to keep in mind: 
Movement
Breath
Reflection

Even if you already have practices in place that address these three categories, sometimes grief can be a game changer, requiring us to find new strategies. The intensity of grief stresses our nervous system, and can lead to exhaustion, irritability, anxiety, and a general sense of being on edge. Movement, focused breathing, and intentional reflection help your nervous system metabolize this stress and restore a sense of ease and calm. 

Build in physical activity. You don’t have to sign up for a marathon, but making time for movement is one of the best ways to care for your nervous system. Fulfilling our daily responsibilities while grieving can be extremely time-consuming, so start small. Take a few five minute walks throughout the day, put the dishes aside and play with the kids or the dog, or if you have the time, try out a yoga class or a weekend hike.

Spend a few moments each day focusing on your breath. Studies repeatedly show that intentional deep breathing helps calm your body’s fight/flight/freeze response. Pick something you do every day, such as brushing your teeth or waiting at red lights, and use that as a time to take 5-10 deliberate breaths. You can also play with drawing out the exhale a moment or two longer than the inhale. Pay attention to what you notice while you’re breathing. What sounds, sensations, thoughts, and emotions come to the surface?

Take a moment to tune into the emotions and thoughts that come up while talking about your grief with other people. We can be so quick to push our feelings aside in the name of being present for others or not making them uncomfortable, but acknowledging these responses helps you stay connected to your own experience. It also enables you to make more informed choices about what you need, rather than reacting in a daze or numbing out. Do you ever find yourself automatically reaching for caffeine, sugar, or television after a difficult experience or interaction? If so, try to wait a few moments to minutes before doing so. Something this simple (but not necessarily easy) can go a long way to build more awareness about your response patterns. If you are someone who journals, track the instances when you find yourself automatically reaching for distractions as a way to feel better. Over time, see if you can expand the time between when stressors occur and engaging with those distractions.

Create a gratitude practice. This might seem trite given how saturated popular culture is with catchy phrases of thanks, but research again supports that conscious gratitude really does shift our thinking and also our neurobiology. Sometimes we have to dig deep to find anything we’re grateful for, but it can be worth coming up with two or three things once a day. Perhaps this is something you do privately, writing them in a journal or thinking about them on your commute, or maybe it’s something you share with friends and family.

There is a multitude of possibilities for self-care while grieving and these are just a few suggestions to consider. What works for you will be as unique as your grief. If you keep the basic tenets of movement, breath, and reflection in mind, you will make such a positive contribution to your nervous system and yourself. 

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Dec 2, 2016

The Season of Giving and Gratitude

Swinth Family
Swinth Family

The season of giving and gratitude is upon us and we’d like to take this opportunity to say thank you. Thanks to the generous support of community members like you, we are now serving over 500 grieving children and 350 adult family members each month at one of our three Dougy Center locations. And thanks to you, we moved more than 185 kids off our waiting list, and into the grief support group they so desperately needed.  The grief support services we provide are free to every single child and family member who walks through our door, and that is because of you.               

Kitty lived life in the moment. She loved to smile, laugh, and connect with people. She taught her children to have compassion. She embodied grace, courage, and determination in everything she did. In the workplace, she was a beloved colleague – a leader in value-based healthcare. At home, she was a wife and mother of four young children. But in April of 2014, she lost a five-year battle with breast cancer, leaving her husband Mark to care for their children, Emily, Kira, Tucker, and Milo.

Prior to her death, Kitty told Mark about The Dougy Center. A place she knew would provide her children a place to connect with other kids grieving the death of a parent; a place she knew would also provide her husband the support and resources he needed as a grieving and newly-widowed father.

Initially hesitant to go to The Dougy Center, Emily (16) and Kira (15) didn’t know what to expect. Kira said she “imagined a hospital room with chairs in a circle” and the last thing she wanted was to spend more time in a hospital setting. Instead, the girls found a safe place that felt like home. Emily shared “I immediately found friends and people I could talk to.”

Tucker (12) and Milo (9) were excited to go to The Dougy Center from the very start! Tucker liked that The Dougy Center “encouraged expressing yourself through play and having fun with people who really understood”. Tucker likes playing instruments in the music room, bouncing off the walls in the volcano room, and playing air hockey with friends who have had similar losses. Milo said he “started making friends really fast.”  Milo enjoys making popcorn upon arrival, and playing in the theatre room and game room.

Mark found solace in talking with other parents dealing with common challenges and struggles. “you weren’t born with a muscle for how to talk about grief,” Mark shared. “It’s helpful to have a safe and welcoming setting where people can come together, communicate and share. “

When a parent dies, it is a major financial blow for any family “After such a loss, you start to go through the family budget and you look for things to take out. And it’s not enough, so you go back. It’s a real puzzle.  Because Dougy Center services are free, it made it possible for us to go.”

Today, Mark, Emily, Kira, Tucker and Milo have been Dougy Center participants for one year. And without support from The Dougy Center and people like you, their grief journey would look very different.  They found a place to grow, process, reflect, and connect and hope these services will continue to be available for any grieving family in need.

You can help make a difference in the story for a family like this one. With your gift, you help ensure that no child feels alone in their grief and that all children have the opportunity to access our services for free.

The Dougy Center does not receive insurance reimbursements or government funds. We rely solely on donors like you.  Your gift will support the type of place where grief is okay, where play is encouraged, and where there are other grieving kids and adults who can truly connect.

Kitty was known for instilling compassion in her children. Our ability to provide free grief support services depends on your compassionate heart. Every dollar makes a difference in the lives of grieving children, and we thank you from the bottom of our grateful hearts. 

Swinth Family2
Swinth Family2

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Aug 23, 2016

Back to School with Grief

It’s August which means many families are preparing for the start of school. When families are also grieving,  this transition can bring a mixture relief, dread, excitement, and trepidation.

Much like work for adults, children and teens spend a majority of their time at school and they take their grief with them. For some children and teens, returning to school is comforting. They find support in the structure, familiarity, connections with friends, and the opportunity to focus on something other than grief. For others though, it can be a challenging venture that brings additional stress, uncertainty, and worry. What to think through and how to help depends on a number of factors. How old is your child and what grade are they in? Who died in their life and what was their relationship? How did the person die? When did the loss occur? There’s no formula for how the answers to these questions affect someone’s grief, but they are important to consider as you sort through how to best support your child or teen in returning to school.

No matter our age, we engage with grief on many levels: emotional, physical, cognitive, spiritual, and behavioral. Whether it’s the emotional ups and downs of relating with peers, focusing on schoolwork, or having to talk about family culture and beliefs for a project, school can be a place that connects with multiple facets of grief. If a death or other loss occurred over the summer, returning to school can be extremely charged. Even for those who are familiar with being in school while grieving, each year brings new challenges and milestones to face without the person who died.

Transitions can be difficult for anyone, but especially so for those who are grieving. As your family moves from the rhythm of summer to school, children and teens may be worried, irritable, or overwhelmed. You can help with this transition by planning ahead and talking with them about upcoming changes related to bed/wake up times, chores, pick-up/drop-off routines, homework expectations, and after school activities. If your child has first day fears about finding their way around or what their teacher(s) will be like, see if you can arrange a time the week before school starts to take a tour and even meet the staff. Knowing what to expect can be reassuring for both children and teens. 

One of students’ biggest back to school concerns is wondering who knows about the death and what details they have. If the death happened over the summer, or if your child is going to a new school, ask what they would like shared with teachers and classmates. Your child’s first instinct might be to keep the death a secret. Often they fear being treated differently or being seen as “the kid whose (parent/caregiver/sibling) died.” While it’s important to honor your child’s wishes, talk with them about the challenges of trying to keep the loss a secret. Doing so takes a lot of energy and can limit their ability to open up with friends. The other side is when teachers know your child is grieving, they are better equipped to be supportive and understanding. Depending on the size of your school community, it’s possible that other students already know about the death, whether from social media or the adults in their lives. Given that, talk with your child about the power of being able to tell their own story, rather than people finding out in other ways. For younger children this could mean a teacher telling the class, with or without your child present. With older students, offer to talk with their teachers and also forecast with them what it will be like to tell friends that someone in their life has died.

There are many casual conversations where family and friends may come up. Anything from “What do your parents do?” to “Do you have any brothers and sisters?” to “Why do your grandparents pick you up after school?” can catch your child off guard. It’s helpful for them to have ideas ahead of time for how to respond. We’ve heard over and over how awkward it is for students to return to school and be met with a flurry of “I’m sorry for your loss,” and hugs from classmates they’ve never really talked to before. Teens in particular are sensitive to what they consider to be saccharine sympathy (“Oh you poor thing,”) or people trying to relate by saying, “I know how you feel, my dog died last year.” There’s also the challenge of offhand comments which can be particularly painful for grieving students. Examples include: “This class is killing me,” “My mom is driving me crazy, sometimes I wish she would just die,” and “I’m so bored, I could shoot myself.” Again, it’s useful to talk with your child about these types of comments and strategize replies that work for them. Depending on how the person died, there can be additional challenges related to how other people respond. This is particularly true for deaths that are traditionally met with societal stigma such as suicide, murder, and drug overdose. As one teen in our groups shared, “The challenge with suicide is there are a lot more ways for people to be insensitive about it.” Talking openly with your child about the death and answering their questions is a great way to help them feel more comfortable and secure when faced with judgment from others.

Here are a few other general back to school aspects to consider:

1. Make a difficult day safety plan: Throughout the year, there will be months and days that are more difficult than others. Often these coincide with the approach of significant days. It could be your child’s birthday or the birthday of the person who died, the anniversary not only of the day someone died, but also any other events connected to the death such as a diagnosis, hospital stay, or “first and lasts” (ex. first volleyball tournament since the death, the last time the person who died was at a school event, first field trip without the person there to chaperone, etc.).  No matter the time of year, it’s helpful for children and teens to have a difficult day safety plan in place. Talk with your child first to identify what they need when they feel overwhelmed. Then, collaborate with teachers, counselors, and administrators to identify strategies for your child to access that support. This might look like figuring out a teacher, counselor, or other staff that your child feels safe with and making a plan for how they can leave their classroom to check in with that person. One family used a pebble system where the student could silently place a pebble on the teacher’s desk as a sign that they were going to walk down to the office for a short break with a counselor. Even if your child never implements their difficult day safety plan, it can be very reassuring to have one in place.    

2. Find ways for children and teens to check in with you or other caregivers: 
After a death, children and teens often fear something will happen to other people in their lives. Going the entire school day without a check-in can be a lot to ask, especially in the first few months after a death. Talk with your child and school staff about how they can check in with you or others at certain times throughout the day. This can be a simple as a quick phone call at the school office or a lunch time text. 

3. Plan drop-off and pick-up routines:
 If the person who died was a part of a child’s drop-off and pick-up routine, those times of day can be especially difficult. Ask your child ahead of time about these and talk about possible options to problem-solve their concerns. Some will want to keep things as routine as possible while others may want to try out something totally new. Nine-year-old Maya was used to walking her little sister to class every morning. When her sister died over the summer, Maya dreaded walking into school without her sister there to hold her hand. After a few conversations, she and her father realized if Maya could be ready to leave ten minutes early, her father could walk her into school and still get to work on time.

4. Talk about after school rituals: Similar to drop-off/pick-up routines, what after school activities are affected by the death? Is your child used to having a snack and going to the park with his grandmother every day? Did your teen go over to her best friend’s house to work on homework? Not knowing what it will be like can be the hardest part of grief, so work together to come up with an after school plan. This gives your child a chance to talk about what they will miss and be part of coming up with new alternatives they can look forward to.  

5. Address challenges with concentration, memory, and school assignments:
 Grief can take a toll on our ability to focus and complete tasks. As one teen shared, “Thinking about my sister’s death took up all of my brain space, there wasn’t any room left for algebra.” Many people say they struggle to remember anything from moment to moment, leaving them in need of multiple reminders and strategies to stay organized. The same is true for students. Work with your child and their teacher(s) to come up with ideas for trying to focus and keeping track of schoolwork. One fifth grader picked a homework buddy who promised to check in at the end of the day to make sure he had all the correct worksheets and would also call every night after dinner to see if he had questions about the assignments.

6. Make time for recreation, play, and friends: Grieving students are still children and teens who need time for rest, relaxation, and fun. When school and work get hectic, making plans for connecting and fun can be quickly put aside in an effort to get everything done. Play is how children, especially young children, process and integrate what is happening in their world. If the person who died was an integral part of their play and fun, it’s helpful to be aware that they might be worried about who will do those activities with them now. If your child had a weekend tradition of watching movies or playing video games with their brother, ask if that is something they want to continue to do with someone else or if it’s too painful at this point. Let children know it’s okay to keep traditions or change them up completely. Sometimes a loss can leave a parent or caregiver with significantly less time and financial resources for recreation and play. If this is true, are there people in your community who can step in to help? For many children, knowing they have dedicated time to spend with the adults they care about, no matter the activity, is the most important thing. Sitting down once a day to read a book together, walking the dog after dinner, or even making a pillow and blanket fort are great options for connecting.

7. Find ways to take care of yourself: Research tells us how a grieving child will fare is strongly connected to how their adult caregivers are doing. Self-care is often easier said than done, especially when you are grieving and it feels like one more thing on a very long to-do list. Whether it’s finding time to be by yourself, connecting with others, exercising, getting enough sleep, being creative, or anything else that brings you ease and comfort, attending to the needs of your mind, body, and spirit is one of the best ways you can support your child. For more suggestions on self-care, check out this episode of our Dear Dougy podcast.

Returning to school is a significant experience for every student and particularly for those who are grieving. No matter how your child feels about the start of school, we hope these ideas and suggestions will provide you with a good foundation for talking with them about their concerns and finding ways for them to feel supported and understood. For more information, please see our guidebook, Help for the Grieving Student, A Guide for Teachers.

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