By Cynthia Wolff
Imagine a young child in elementary school grieving the sudden death of her parent. A referral was made to the Yolo Hospice child bereavement support group — Stepping Stones.
In the beginning, when children join this group they often choose not to participate. Overwhelmed with grief, they often pass when asked questions. Emotions can be hard to identify and put into words. Children see themselves as different from their classmates. Participation in school events is not the same.
As children continue to attend the support group, they begin to feel more comfortable, and able to talk about their loss. Sometimes it takes many months, or more than a year for the family to see benefit. A sign of recovery can be evidenced by speaking more openly about the death, grieving and emotions. Healing is also evidenced by sharing experiences with members new to the group. Family members appreciate how trained professionals who facilitate the group can approach a subject that is still too painful or difficult for them to talk about.
Aja Michael, a medical social worker, is 31 years old, born and raised in the Sacramento area. She lives with her husband, two young boys, two dogs and two chickens. Prior to her work with Yolo Hospice, she taught preschool and kindergarten in a Montessori school for almost nine years. During her time there, she had multiple experiences working with grieving children and families and found herself very connected to this work.
After some significant personal losses, it became clear to Aja that she found her calling in grief work. She changed her major from child development to social work and obtained her bachelor of social work in 2009 from Sacramento State University. She went on to complete her master of social work degree in 2011. During this time, she trained in a variety of settings, including Sacramento County In-Home Support Services, Sacramento City School District and Yolo Hospice. Aja is currently working on her supervised hours for obtaining her license as a licensed clinical social worker.
Aja began her tenure at Yolo Hospice in May 2011 and became the Stepping Stones program coordinator that September. During her time as program coordinator, she has attended numerous conferences and trainings, including a specialized program development training by Donna Schuurman, executive director of The Dougy Center (www.dougyorg). Its mission “provides support and training locally, nationally and internationally to individuals and organizations seeking to assist children in grief.”
Aja contacts all of our families who have children affected by the death of a loved one. She provides information and resources to community members, including grieving families, school staff, law enforcement and medical professionals. Each week she facilitates bereavement groups for children and teens, serving up to 18 families a month. She also provides individual grief support counseling for children ranging in age from 3 to 18.
Aja is a regular presenter in our office and to our community on understanding children’s grief and topics related to grieving children.
Aja and Yolo Hospice staff believe grief is a natural and normal experience for all children after the death of a loved one. At Stepping Stones, we provide them with a safe space to remember their loved one, express and explore emotions, develop healthy coping skills, and learn from their peers. It is also important for them to know that it’s OK to laugh, play, and have fun after a death, so we do plenty of this as well.
Aja is on track with her goal to complete her hours for licensure and plans to continue her work with grieving children.
“I hope to educate our community on this topic and program so that no child has to grieve alone,” she says.
Contributions from community have helped Yolo Hospice provide a wide range of bereavement services, from the child and teen bereavement program Stepping Stones to the many support groups we run for adults. All are offered at no charge.
Yolo Hospice continues to care for any patient in need, regardless of their insurance coverage or ability to pay. Visit our website at www.yolohospice.org for more information about bereavement programs.
— Cynthia Wolff is the director of access and outreach for Yolo Hospice. This column is published monthly.