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Ele’s Place: Helping children and youth heal through grief

By Daniel Layman, President and CEO, Ele’s Place Michigan

Ele’s Place provides a safe and welcoming environment for grieving children and teens to share feelings and experiences, peer-to-peer, in coping with the death of someone close to them. With $25,000 in critical funding from The Children’s Foundation during the pandemic, Ele’s Place rapidly assembled an innovative virtual support network across the state, sustaining our vision of no child grieving alone.

While we closed our grief centers for part of 2021, our mission continued, virtually, with support from The Children’s Foundation for staff and volunteer training as well as improved technology. Ele’s Place shifted traditional programming of face-to-face peer support in our grief centers and partner schools to engaging over 50 virtual groups!

This shift opened virtual doors to our services and addressed long-standing barriers of access for grieving families. Virtual peer groups using Zoom allowed our children and teens to come together and share their experiences in new and healing ways.

Our wonderful teens and volunteer facilitators!

Converting in-person group activities to an on-line platform was a major project involving re-engagement and training of our volunteer team. Hundreds of hours were dedicated to learning and practicing virtual facilitation techniques and a newly developed computer-based curriculum.

One of our facilitators shared her experience working with a virtual group of high school teens, highlighting Abby, a group member with Down’s Syndrome.  Abby attended the first group in a quiet manner and shared one-word responses often difficult for group members to understand.  As Abby grew more comfortable with her peers, week after week, she became verbally engaged.  Abby began using the facilitator’s name in discussions. She spoke more complete sentences while reciting a letter to her person who died.   She began to smile and laugh with her peers during each session.

In the final group, another student shared he gained a sense of community, saying “I realize I’m not alone. Our feelings and memories are valid.”

Several of the students expressed feeling more conscientious about being kind and compassionate with the people in their lives and connecting with those around them.

A virtual activity the facilitator utilized in this teen group was keeping a cumulative list of feeling words throughout the 8-week program. She added words from each session to a growing list reaching 80 different feeling descriptors! During the last session, participants reviewed their group list and discovered initial feelings of shame, sadness, pain, regret, and fear evolved into words such as forgiving, patient, understanding, thoughtful, loving, insightful, comfortable, and gentle. This affirmed for the teens that while grief-work can be messy, all feelings are okay and valid as part of the healing journey.

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