Gilda’s Club High School Grief Group Helps Teens

Gilda’s Club is known for offering emotional support to individuals with cancer as well as their family and caregivers.  Those dealing with grief after the death of a loved one can also come to Gilda’s Club for help in dealing the loss.  Some programs reach beyond the doors of the Lowell Clubhouse. Fifth grade students learn about Tough Stuff and how to deal with struggles which may come about in life.  And each Tuesday, high school students are able to attend a grief group to talk about their feelings, share stories with others going through similar circumstances, and find support as they deal with the loss of a loved one.  

Facing Grief
Life and how it is lived is different for everyone.  The same is true with death. It’s impossible to know how one will deal with death until put into the throes of a loss.  The reaction to each loss will be a different experience. Whenever a death occurs, those left behind are faced with loss.  A group of high school students have the opportunity to meet weekly to discuss loss with those who have experienced it as well.  The definition of grief also differs from person to person.

Grief as a result of an unexpected situation or when you are younger can be harder to cope with, especially when peers often try to sympathize but don’t fully understand.  Julie Petrie of GIlda’s Club leads the weekly group, which has been meeting for the last seven years. She joined Gilda’s Club after being a school counselor.

Death has brought students together.  Some have lost a friend. Others a relative.  The cause of death differs as well, from natural causes, a medical condition, accidents, overdose, murder, and suicide.  Approximately 10 students at Lowell High School have found a safe place where they do not feel alone. They gather due to sad and even horrible situations, yet together they’re showing each other support and respect over a common bond of loss and grief.  

Experiencing Grief
Nobody really understands it.” says junior Allexis Gonzales, whose younger sister passed away following a car accident last fall.  The reaction of others to a person’s grief is a common topic of discussion among the students in the group. “People think you can just get over it.” comments Gonzales.  However, grief is something which stays with a person. It may get easier over time, but there’s no prescribed timeline for when the loss of someone is no longer felt. There’s no checklist to complete.  For many it never goes away. Anniversaries, birthdays, songs, smells, almost anything can bring back the memory of someone who has passed away. That in turn can bring back sadness felt from the loss.

Gonzales and her sister recently attended a wrestling tournament where their younger sister Cora would have been competing alongside them.  It was difficult but they felt their sister was still with them. If a participant goes undefeated during the tournament they are presented with a sword which can be engraved with whatever the recipient chooses.  Gonzales achieved this goal two years ago, last year it was her sister. This year they were hoping would be Cora’s turn. Allexis went undefeated again this year and chose to honor her sister by having her name engraved on the sword she received.  

The students who gather each Tuesday during a different hour each week, so the same class is not missed each time, discuss loss and how they are dealing with grief.  The group typically starts off with participants talking about positive things which happened since their last meeting. They also take beads and place them into a jar or bowl if something is on their mind with regard to grief.  Last week, Alita Cadwallader experienced the one year anniversary since the death of her grandmother and talked about how she was dealing with remember the event. Her cousin would visit with their grandmother prior to the high school dances to show off her dress.  This year she will make a special trip to the cemetery in her dress. Cadwallader will also make a visit to show her grandmother the diploma she will receive. The two cousins shared their story last year as part of Pink Arrow’s Perseverance Stories last year.           

Dealing with Grief
There’s an enormous amount of weight felt after the loss of a loved one.  Common reactions can be lack of physical and mental energy making it difficult to complete even simple tasks.  One member of the group says those who are already prone to depression have an extra layer added to their grief process.  

The group, currently made up of all females, has also discussed the differences in how males versus females deal with grief.  Those dealing with loss also face different situations in which they must adapt. When a bad moment, hour, day or even week is happening, the person going through the rough patch must still go to work, school, sporting events, and other life functions.  They don’t stop. While members of an individual’s family are also dealing with grief, the manner in which it is done does not always the same. Some become emotional while others seek solitude. Discussion helps some while internal reflection works better for others.  And sometimes the reaction is different depending on the situation and people around during a difficult period.

Grief isn’t simple.  It’s a complex, ever-changing mix of emotions.  Those high school students who have found their way to the weekly grief group laugh and cry together.  Their friendships and personal development also grow over time. Petrie says she has seen a change in Cadwallader in the four years she has known her.  Transitioning to not knowing how to deal with grief to being an example of how the experience can make you stronger is one of the greatest ways she has grown.    

Advice on Grief
The students involved in the grief group also note it’s difficult at times to explain to others when hard moment, day or even week is happening for whatever reason.  They themselves realize before they experienced loss personally, understanding what someone else is going through is difficult. Friends mean well, but often don’t realize why someone can still be sad weeks, months, and even years after experiencing a loss.

Respect.  That’s the one word members of the grief group want to pass along.  They hope others will at least respect their feelings even if they don’t get it.  Taking it another step, listening is another way those dealing with grief can be shown support if they’re in the mood to talk.  A willingness to talk about grief with others isn’t something which happens all of the time. Being respectful of when a friend going through the grief process wants to talk is also important.  Don’t give up on the person. Let him or her know, as a friend, you’ll be there when needed.

Seeking Help
A newer member of the group found out about it through Gonzales and was encouraged to join.  Counselors at the high school also mention the group to those students they know have experienced a loss regardless of whether they appear to be having a difficult time.  Those who are part of the group say it’s important for students to have a place to come. They encourage students who have experienced a loss to check the group out and see if it’s a good fit.  There’s no judging.

Those looking for information about the high school grief group can talk to school counselors.  Gilda’s Club can also be contacted should a student wish to not obtain information through the school.  In addition to the group which meets at the high school, Tuesday evening grief groups meet at Gilda’s Club Lowell for people of all ages seeking support after a loss of any kind.  

The high school grief group is wrapping up for the school year and will take a break over the summer.  But they’ll resume weekly meetings in September.

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