Helping Kids and Teens Cope with Grief

A school-based counseling program helps kids and teens cope with grief and move toward a more hopeful future.
Siblings Austin and Karlee Bosley found comfort in the Growing Through Grief group after their father's death.

After cancer claimed the life of Austin and Karlee Bosley’s father three years ago, these teens struggled to process the conflicting and overpowering emotions welling inside them. Fortunately, a social worker at St. Louis Park High School introduced Austin and Karlee to Growing Through Grief, a grief support program for children who have experienced the death of a loved one.

Sponsored by the Park Nicollet Foundation, Growing Through Grief offers a weekly support group at St. Louis Park High School where kids like Austin and Karlee can connect with a counselor and other students who understand what they’re going through. “Some days when I couldn’t pay attention in class or felt on the verge of breaking down, going to grief group made school worth attending,” says Austin, now 19. Their mother, Kristen Johnson, believes the program is “a life saver.”

The school-based program, which started in 1997, is available in 12 metro school districts. Counselors go into schools to provide ongoing group and individual grief support, crisis management and education at no cost to students and staff. The inspiration for the program came from the family of a young woman named Katy McCourtney. Park Nicollet had provided health care for her father before his death, and following his passing, McCourtney made poor choices in dealing with her grief. She later died due to substance abuse when she was just 29 years old.

McCourtney’s family wanted to honor Katy’s memory and help other kids handle issues associated with grief. The resulting program gives kids access to grief support at school, where they are most comfortable and can find solace among peers dealing with similar challenges.

Throughout the participating school districts, Growing Through Grief provides 55 grief groups to more than 50 students each week. Approximately 25 students at St. Louis Park High School are invited to grief groups each year. Between 10 and 15 attend regularly. A few others attend individual counseling sessions. Age-appropriate sessions are also offered to middle school and elementary school students.

Karlee, now 17, says group sessions often begin with students sharing their highs and lows for the week. Sometimes students participate in an activity like making a Christmas tree ornament or a bracelet inscribed with the name of the person they’ve lost. “We once wrote a letter to our grief,” says Karlee. “Those letters tended to be angry, telling grief we didn’t want it to bother us anymore.”

Younger children are encouraged to use art to express emotions. A touching Park Nicollet Foundation YouTube video features drawings of how youngsters define grief, followed by drawings of what they believe defines hope.

Counselors are readily available during times of crisis, such as after the accidental deaths of two children from Peter Hobart Elementary School during a field trip to Lilydale Park last May. Daena Esterbrooks is the counselor who was contacted immediately following the accident. “We have established relationships in these schools,” says Esterbrooks. “It was reassuring for students to see us in the building. We assured staff members it was OK for students to see them cry and that we were there to help with whatever they needed.” Esterbrooks credits the school district’s well-established crisis support system for helping everyone understand what needed to be done during a difficult situation.

Counselors are also tuned in to moments that can increase a grieving child’s stress, like the holiday season. Program coordinator Sarah Kroenke notes some kids may have experienced a death in their family years ago, but haven’t allowed themselves to deal with their pain or express their emotions. Stressful times can trigger that grief. “Group is a process,” says Kroenke. “Our role is to educate kids about letting go of their pain and coping in a healthy way, that it doesn’t mean letting go of their love for the person they’ve lost.”

Karlee Bosley is now a senior at St. Louis Park High School. “I was in eighth grade when my dad passed. In the beginning I felt alone and didn’t believe it was actually real,” she says. “Over the years in grief group, I’ve learned to accept what’s happened while knowing I’ll never forget my dad.”

Sarah Kroenke offers these tips for helping a grieving child during the holidays

  1. Don’t fear saying anything wrong. Be honest.
  2. Tell them you don’t know how they are feeling, but that you are there for them.
  3. Parents of a grieving child might consider letting kids choose which holiday traditions they wish to keep. Give them permission to skip activities that can cause added anguish or marked sadness.

Hope Heals a Journal of Love, Loss and Memories by Sarah Kroenke and Daena Esterbrooks also offers insight; available at shop.parknicollet.com; $16.95.

To make a donation to Growing Through Grief, visit parknicollet.com and click on the Park Nicollet Foundation.