HANCOCK - Grief is what Bonnie Johnson says formed her life - from the time she was one and a half.
"I had a sister who died in the birth process," she recalled with obvious emotion. "A decision had to be made whether to save my mother, save the baby, or take a chance on losing both."
In those days, Johnson said, people often didn't deal with grief or even talk about it, and often were told to just forget about it.
Eight-year-old cousins Evan Labyak and Raven Johnson, read “Quilly’s Sideways Grief,” while Raven holds a porcupine hand puppet “Quilly.” The author of the book, Dr. Kelly Rhoades, is the featured speaker at two programs called “Recognizing the Cues: When Children and Adolescents Grieve,” to be held held Oct. 7 at the Finnish American Heritage Center in Hancock.
"People don't forget about grief," she said. "The fact that there was no support available made it very difficult for my parents to deal with the process of grieving and with the rest of life."
Years of unattended loss and grief opened the doors to what became a life dedicated to helping others. Johnson, a nurse and retired nurse-educator, has been a volunteer board member of the Community Coalition on Grief and Bereavement for the past four years. Serving the four-county area, the Community Coalition on Grief and Bereavement is a non-profit 501c3 organization committed to addressing the unmet needs of grieving people in the community through educational programs, support groups and referrals.
In October, the coalition is sponsoring a free program called "Recognizing the Cues: When Children and Adolescents Grieve," designed to provide information on the recognition, education and support of grieving children and adolescents and those who care for them.
Two presentations will be held Oct. 7 at the Finlandia University Finnish American Heritage Center in Hancock. The afternoon program, from 1 to 4 p.m., is geared toward professional adults dealing with children who may be grieving. The evening program, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. is geared toward parents, grandparents, foster parents, or anyone wanting to learn more about childhood and adolescent grief. However, each session is open to the general public.
Presenting the program is nationally renowned grief and bereavement professional, educator and author, Dr. Kelly Rhoades.
"We're so pleased to have someone of her caliber coming to our community to present this information," said volunteer board member Barbara Kendall. "Grief is such a difficult thing to talk about and our organization has been faithful to this effort."
Dr. Rhoades is chairperson and professor in the Hospice and Palliative Studies Department in the College of Nursing & Health at Madonna University in Livonia, Mich.
Prior to her career in academia, Dr. Rhoades began her hospice work with grieving families in 1987. She was highly active in community education, facilitating grief support programs and specialty workshops.
In 2009, she published "Quilly's Sideways Grief," a story-based curriculum about love and loss. The book offers activities and questions for adults to use for discussion with children. The storyline features Quilly, a young porcupine, who has been acting differently since the loss of his grandfather. Quilly's friends notice "he's acting weird," when he begins to isolate himself, act out and bottle his feelings inside. Quilly's feelings come out sideways, expressed by his drooping, bristly quills. Ultimately, his friend Barby, helps Quilly by talking with him about how he's feeling. She tells him that when her grandmother died, even though it was hard at first, talking about Grandma made her feel better.
"One of the most useful statements I have ever heard as I was learning about helping grieving families is, 'If you are old enough to love, you are old enough to grieve,'" Dr. Rhoades said. "Grief is often more traumatic and severe for a child and an adolescent than it is for an adult. Children are the forgotten grievers."
Light refreshments and program handouts will be available at each presentation.
"Registration is not necessary and certificates of attendance will be given to those who attend," Kendall said. "This really is a high-quality presentation. Plan to attend this workshop to learn more about children's grief and how we can better care for children, their caregivers and ourselves."
Kendall said participants can expect a number of issues to be covered during the program, such as: recognizing when grieving children may require intervention; describing the tasks of grief as they apply to grieving children and families; gaining skills in facilitating grief support through story and art; and reviewing local resources for supporting grieving children.
In his book "Healing the Bereaved Child," author Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD, likens a hailstorm-stricken garden to a bereaved child.
Like the garden, that "may take a few weeks or even another whole season before our garden seems itself again ... Bereaved children don't bounce back right away, either."
Wolfelt continued, "Still, many adults simply do not understand that grief and mourning are processes, not events."
By attending the program, Kendall said participants will gain an understanding that any child that is old enough to love is old enough to grieve; grief is often more traumatic for a child and an adolescent than for an adult; learn how to teach children about grief and understand that children express their grief differently than adults.
The Community Coalition on Grief and Bereavement was founded in 1996 and is comprised of individuals representing agencies as well as volunteers from the community.
Kendall, who is one of the organization's original founding members, said she hopes to see a successful turnout for Dr. Rhoades' program.
"It's life information and no matter where you are in your life journey, it's important to support grieving people," she said. "Especially with children, it's so important."
Johnson said when her mother passed away two years ago, two of her grandchildren were 6 years old and, in a 6-year-old's way, could understand the process of what was going on with "Nanny."
"We tried to let them and each of our other grandchildren be as involved as they wanted to be in my mother's last years," she said. "She was in a nursing home but they were able to visit her and spend time with her."
When it came time for the funeral, Evan and Raven wanted to attend along with the rest of their family members. The funeral was held in Sault Ste. Marie, where Johnson is originally from.
"There was a horrendous blizzard for several days so a lot of people couldn't make it," she said. "When they were taking the casket out of the church to the hearse, it got stuck on the door jamb."
In the meantime, Raven and Evan saw what was happening and they got together side by side and helped to push.
"This is the perfect illustration of allowing children to do what helps them as they are going through the grief process," Kendall said.
For more information, call Dial Help at 482-4357 or visit www.grief-ccgb.org.
Editor's note: This feature is part of a paid advertising package purchased by the Community Coalition on Grief and Bereavement. Businesses interested in being featured on the Business page may call Yvonne Robillard at 483-2220.