Hunter kids take to the trees to tackle grief

A Newcastle-based grief counselling team will host a one-day support group at the Tree Top Adventure Park on 4 April for young people who’ve suffered the unexpected death of someone in their family.

The day which is made possible through funding from nib foundation, is an extension of Keeping Connections: Childhood Bereavement Program, a one-of-a-kind grief counselling service for children run by the Department of Forensic Medicine, Newcastle*.

The Keeping Connections: Childhood Bereavement Program is the first of its kind for the families of the greater Hunter region. Developed by the Department of Forensic Medicine with a University of Newcastle social work program, it was a finalist in the 2013 NSW Health Innovation Awards.

The eight-week facilitated peer group program is aimed at children aged 7 to 12 whose dads have died, with a parallel group for surviving parents and caregivers.

Danny Nugus, a grief counsellor with the program, says the death of a parent is the most fundamental loss a child can face. Many children feel alone, isolated, different and unable to talk about their experiences for fear of upsetting others or themselves. Keeping Connections was developed with these children in mind.

“Keeping Connections provides a safe space where children and young people can connect with each other about their loss, express their feelings and develop healthy ways of coping,” Danny said.

“To coincide with Youth Week, we’re hosting a special one-day support group at the Tree Top Adventure Park in Minmi that will help grieving kids boost their confidence levels and cope with new challenges.

“We’re expecting 16 young people aged 10 to 19 to attend our Tree Top Challenge, including some who went through our Keeping Connections program last year.”

Danny said the Tree Top Challenge will see young people will support and encourage each other up in the trees as they face the rope obstacle course. They will be out of their comfort zones and facing unfamiliar and challenging situations. By supporting each other, they’ll help build each other’s confidence to achieve more than they thought possible.

Back on the ground and guided by qualified counsellors, the young people will share their feelings about the challenges they faced, how they overcame them and connect those experiences to ways of coping with the challenges of loss and bereavement.

“We want the participating children to learn from each other about how to face an uncertain future and know they are not alone.”

“Talking and listening to others in the same age group who’ve gone through similar experiences can have lasting benefits for young people.

“It helps them begin to make sense of the death, maintain a helpful connection with the person who died, and rebuild their lives.

“The outdoor adventure will reinforce that it’s important to have fun and try new things, even after such a massive loss. Doing so doesn’t mean you forget the person who died or need to feel guilty for living your life,” Danny explained.

Funding by nib foundation has helped the program expand in 2014 to develop a range of therapeutic children’s bereavement groups including initiatives like the Tree Top Challenge.

nib foundation Chairman, Keith Lynch said the therapeutic program was an important resource to help these children understand and cope with their grief.

“Research shows that childhood grief is associated with increased risk of self-harm and mental health difficulties, truancy and poor school performance, low self-esteem, reduced social connectedness, and a breakdown in family functioning,” Mr Lynch said.

“We are proud to support this unique program that will provide age-appropriate counselling and peer support to help these children and their carers through what is often a very difficult time in their lives,” he added.

The next eight-week Keeping Connections group for children and their surviving parents/carers will begin at the end of April.

*The Department of Forensic Medicine is part of the state’s Forensic and Analytical Science Service, one of five specialist networks within NSW Health Pathology. The Department of Forensic Medicine conducts post-mortems at the request of the coroner and provides specialist grief counselling to the families of the deceased.