The ongoing pandemic raises stress and anxiety levels for most, if not all, of us — and that includes children. There’s already a shortage of mental health professionals for children, and this situation won’t help. New Hampshire has just one ongoing, full-time peer-to-peer organization helping children grieve and grow. Because of the COVID-19 crisis, it is currently offering services remotely.
Still, Christine Phillips,co-founder of the nonprofit Friends of Aine, is hopeful about the future.
“There’s a spirit of collaboration and it’s growing and brilliant. More people are demonstrating community first, individual second,” she said.
The core mission of Friends of Aine is child bereavement. The nonprofit runs the Good Grief program for children ages 4 to 18 from September to June. It meets twice per month, in both Merrimack and Manchester, NH, and is divided by age groups.
“Our model is a peer-to-peer support group. There’s nothing better than having kids there interacting with one another,” Christine said of the groups, which help children grieve and grow. “Getting these kids together helps them understand they’re not alone.”
In the meetings, kids, parents and guardians first come together to greet each other as a group. Then they split off by age with volunteer facilitators. The aim is three children to one facilitator. Facilitators brainstorm ideas for activities, which filter through the group’s clinician, Cammiejean Byrd. Crafts and playtime are used to facilitate conversations about grieving.
“Our success rate is based on a child feeling like they don’t need to come back, though the door is always open,” Christine said.
The Good Grief program is designed to last one academic year, though some return for a second time the following year or later. This is because as some children develop, they relive their grieving and need additional support.
How children grieve differently than adults
The name Friends of Aine comes from Aine, the daughter of Christine and her husband, David, who passed away unexpectedly at age 8. The whole family, including their other daughter, Bella, who was 5 at the time, needed support in their grief. They found it via Merrimack’s Home Health and Hospice Care’s Good Grief program.
“We loved it. We loved the people. We decided we wanted to do something positive in memory of Aine. She liked to look out for other kids. She was our model. We were able to start a 501c3 to help Good Grief expand,” Christine said. “Over time, the need grew more than Home Health and Hospice Care could take on. Their core mission is hospice. So they gifted us the program.”
Even with two locations running twice-monthly meetings, the need is great, especially for additional facilitators to help with the growing number of children wanting to participate. (Anyone looking for volunteer opportunities with Friends of Aine can visit this link.) Unfortunately, as with many other events, Friends of Aine’s annual gala in March 2020 was postponed.
Social distancing rules prevent meeting in person. Instead, Friends of Aine connects with families weekly via email, sending videos and activities using supplies that should be easily accessible at home. While Good Grief is a peer-to-peer group and not a counseling group, they keep participant information confidential, which is why video streaming meetings do not work.
“It’s imperative for them to know we’re still here and they can reach out to us anytime,” Christine said.
She’s looking forward to the day when the Good Grief groups can get together again in person.
“To be with kids who understand how it feels is probably the biggest takeaway for a lot of these children, knowing you can sit in a room together, and they say, ‘Yeah, I know exactly how you feel.’”
Click this link for more information on Friends of Aine.