Millie, a playful standard poodle, picked her paw up off the floor and placed it in the hand of the little girl in front of her. The little girl laughed as Millie chewed on the treat she was given for the trick.
Millie was just one of a handful of dogs spending an hour in Tuten Park’s Education Building on Saturday. The room was also filled with more than two dozen children from the ages of 5 to 12 clamoring over the tail-wagging, face-licking animals.
Also, all of the children were dealing with significant grief from losing a loved one. The dogs they were petting and hugging were therapy dogs, and they were all part of the Shannon Cox Counseling Center’s Good Mourning Gang Winter Group Event.
In the back of the room, photos covered a large portion of one of the walls. Some of the pictures were of smiling adults; others were of babies and small children. The wall was called a “memory wall.” Most of the smiling faces in those photos belonged to deceased relatives of the children in the room. For these kids, Saturday was more than just a day in the park.
Sara McDonald is a counselor with the Shannon Cox Counseling Center. Since 2010, the center has provided counseling, consultation and education to individuals and families in Southwest Louisiana. Recently, the center started offering grief counseling services for children who lost a significant person in their lives.
“This provides support for the children, and it allows them a chance to interact with other kids with similar experiences. Yes, they may go to school or even church with kids their age, but this setting is different. All of the kids here have had some significant loss in their lives,” McDonald said. “Children are always seeking peers, and here we’re providing that in a positive, support-based environment.”
The daylong event is only the second of that type for the center. The previous one occurred over the summer and with its success, McDonald said, there is already a waiting list for the upcoming sessions.
After the children settled down, McDonald had them talk about the photos. Nadia, 14, walked in front of the memory wall and talked about her little sister, Emma. She talked about how Emma died as an infant.
“I would sing ‘You Are My Sunshine’ to her,” Nadia said before she walked back to her seat.
One after the other, kids stood up, walked to the wall of photos and talked about a loved one who was now gone. After each story, the speakers would tap someone else as they headed back to their seat.
Gabriel, 14, talked about his dad, who died in a car accident after leaving his little brother’s karate tournament in New Orleans. Brandon, 9, said his father committed suicide. He went on to talk about the fun things he remembers about him. Bell, 8, said he didn’t really know how his mom died, but he remembers how she used to really enjoy watching “Wheel of Fortune.”
“Everything we do here has a reason behind it. In some way it helps them process their emotions,” McDonald said. “The thing with kids is that they all process their grief differently. They aren’t sad like you and I. For some of them, it may come out in their behavior where they’re acting out or they’re being really withdrawn. Every child is different, and that’s how we treat this process. It’s constantly changing, constantly evolving to fit each individual situation.”
It was a full day for the kids at the park. They participated in a totem pole and mask crafts session. They planted aloe vera plants and they took part in yoga, karate and Zumba dance sessions. McDonald went on to say that determining what to do during the events is a fluid endeavor. The grief concepts are always changing to better suit the needs of the individual.
“All we’re trying to do is develop the best methods for this area. At the end of the day, this whole thing is client directed,” McDonald said.
Outside under the pavilion, balloons floated over one of the tables. The balloons were broken up by color for each of the three age groups at the event — 5-7, 8-9 and 10-12.
Throughout the day, the kids were encouraged to go to the balloons and write something to the loved one they were grieving over. One of the last activities for the kids was to go outside and release the balloon bearing their personal message. Again, McDonald said it was just another creative way to help the kids grieve.
For information about the Shannon Cox Counseling Center’s upcoming events, call 436-9533 or visit the Family & Youth Counseling Agency offices, at 220 Louie St.