The final session in the curriculum of The Cove Center for Grieving Children always takes place in a funeral parlor. It is followed by a pizza party, miniature golf and bumper cars.
Although some adults might expect to lose their appetites after watching their children crawl around in an empty coffin, parents at the Cove stomach such evenings at six locations across Connecticut.
“Understanding death — the finality of it, for example — [is] sometimes hard for children to understand,” said Mike Rohde, the executive director of the Cove . “[The trip to the funeral parlor] helps to demystify death for the children.”
Cove sessions are held twice a month and are led by trained volunteer facilitators. The sessions typically consist of 15 to 20 families who have lost a parent or sibling. Not all volunteers have lost an immediate family member, but Beth Reilly, a clinical supervisor at the New Haven Cove and a member of Yale’s pediatric nurse practitioner faculty, said their training equips them to help those who have.
“Part of the [volunteer] training is to get the person in touch with their own losses,” she said. “It’s universal — everybody’s had a loss.”
Families can attend Cove sessions as long as they want to, but usually stay for around 18 months, Rohde said.
Cove meetings are not always field trips, but they do tend to focus on activities. Rohde said these activities can help children who have lost a loved one cope with their feelings.
“Everyone processes grief in a different way,” he said. “Adults tend to do it more through words; with children it’s more through actions.”
Rohde said the Cove is unique in that it is Connecticut’s only statewide program for grieving children and that all sites use a standardized curriculum, which was written by Cove founders Mary Ann and Jim Emswiler.
Participants in Cove meetings sing songs, light candles in memory of their loved ones, and tell each other their stories. Rohde said the rituals can help bring order to a world that often seems out of control to grieving children, especially if the deceased family member was a parent.
“Often when a child loses a parent, their whole world falls apart,” he said.
Children meet in groups according to their ages while parents meet separately. At every meeting, there is a tent set up for those who want quiet, and also a “hurricane” room, where kids can tear up telephone books and express their anger.
Rohde said many children postpone or conceal their grief.
“I think kids hide their grief more than adults do,” he said.
He added that to get children to deal with grief, the best strategy is simply to listen.
“The most important thing is to be present for the child,” he said. “Sort of [to] be accepting, just a comforting resource.”
Reilly said it is important not to push children to cope with the death of a loved one.
“It’s too overwhelming if you come too soon,” she said, explaining why Cove directors recommend that families wait three months after a loss to join the program.
The Cove hopes to expand its services across the state.
“The goal that we have is to have a Cove site within 30 minutes of every grieving child in Connecticut,” Board of Directors member Debby van Lenten said.
Van Lenten, who also works for the Association of Yale Alumni, said eight more Cove sites would be needed to achieve this goal.