by Nancy Lofholm
Kylie Babeon first experienced grief when she was 9-years-old. Her grandmother had died after a lingering illness, and Babeon found the emotions related to that loss confusing and frightening.
But Babeon had help navigating the uncharted territory of childhood grief when she became involved in HopeWest Kids, a hospice grief-support program for youngsters.
HopeWest Kids, which is completely funded by donations, has grown to become one of the country’s most extensive youth grief programs in a rural area. The program has become unusual in several ways: the range of offerings is very broad and includes satellite services in neighboring towns; participation with schools is very high; and the program serves kids who have no connection to the HopeWest hospice program as well as those whose loved ones died while under HopeWest hospice care. More than 70 percent of the kids participating in the programs previously had no connection to HopeWest.
Since HopeWest started grief programs for kids in 1995, more than 8,000 children, from kindergarten age through teenage years, have taken part in a growing range of programs that encompasses counseling, family support, grief support in schools, camps and retreats, and equine therapy. In just the past year, the program interacted with 625 kids.
Joni Beckner, an art therapist and licensed professional counselor, took over the directorship in 2016. Beckner said she sees many common factors in the grief process of youngsters and teens, one of them is trying hard not to upset the fragile equilibrium in their homes while at the same time, grieving a loss (more than a third of the time the loss of a parent). Many don’t talk to a surviving parent for that reason. They might have had social support for some months following a death, but that often has faded away over time. That is when reality about the loss has settled in. And that is when behavioral issues have begun to surface.
Beckner said each child’s reaction to loss is also unique; each responds to death in different ways.
Babeon was so convinced of the value of the HopeWest Kids’ experience that she returned, as a 15-year-old, to help guide younger kids at Camp Good Grief. She also became a driving force in her high school to ensure grief support services are available to all students: one in five of them, according to national statistics, experience the death of someone close to them by age 18.
Evaluations show success in grief groups provided in area schools in the past year. Out of 195 kids who reported they were having difficulty with school work before they came to the group, 168 said that group participation helped them pay attention in class. School counselors reported 100 percent of students who attended groups demonstrated an ability to use positive coping skills.
“Loss is a hard thing,” Babeon said. “But knowing about grief and how to deal with it is a very powerful thing. To go through grief with the help of HopeWest Kids has helped me become the person I am.”
For more information about HopeWest or the HopeWest Kids visit HopeWestCO.org or call (970)241-2212.
Author’s Note: Nancy Lofholm has been a journalist for more than 40 years. She retired from full-time work in 2015 after 17 years at The Denver Post. She now works as a freelance writer.