Michael Epstein of Ashfield moves from his own grief to helping children
AP MEMBER FEATURE EXCHANGE ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY, FEB. 3 - In this Jan. 21, 2013 photo, Michael Epstein of Ashfield, Mass., a nine-year volunteer at "The Garden: A Center for Grieving Children and Teens," displays a memory quilt in Shelburne Falls, Mass. The quilt is composed of panels made by children to honor family members who have died. Epstein, whose wife died when his own children were 5 and 10 years old, uses a variety of activities to help bereaved children express their feelings. (AP Photo/Greenfield Recorder, Diane Bronaccio) Purchase photo reprints »
ASHFIELD — “Children don’t grieve like adults grieve. And they don’t grieve like adults expect them to,” says Michael Epstein of Ashfield.
Epstein has been working with grieving children for the past nine years as a volunteer facilitator of children’s support groups in a program called “The Garden: A Center for Grieving Children and Teens.”
Although this program is based out of the Hampshire Regional YMCA in Northampton, about 25 percent of the children in this program come from Franklin County towns.
The bereavement program helps children ages 5 through 18 whose lives have been disrupted by the death of a close family member. It also offers professional community education and training in grief support.
In 1993, Epstein’s wife died of cancer, leaving two children who were then ages 5 and 10 years old. “The Garden was not yet around,” said Epstein, who subsequently joined a hospice support group. But when he learned about The Garden, he got involved.
Epstein is employed as a survey engineer for the state Department of Transportation, but over the years he has worked as a volunteer facilitator with all but the youngest age group of children who come through The Garden programs. In the sessions, he has used musical instruments, puppets, kites and artwork to help children express their feelings.
Because the program is based at a Y, the sessions generally end with physical activities, he said.
The bereavement groups for children and the caregivers of grieving children are held on Sunday afternoons, while a support group for teens meets on Wednesday.
“Two generations ago, people didn’t deal with kids’ grieving,” he said. “Kids didn’t go to funerals, per se. Even now, when it comes to kids, they try to hide (death) from them.”
And yet, says Epstein, one in 20 children, under the age of 18, will experience the death of a parent in the United States.
The inability to cope with the loss of a close loved one can affect a child’s ability to get close to other people or form close relationships later on, said Epstein. It can make a child feel alone, and create feelings that she or he isn’t comfortable expressing to classmates.
Although children don’t always show grief in obvious ways, sometimes they will react to a loved one’s death by behaving more immaturely. Some may experience bed-wetting or have trouble making friends. They could start having difficulty in school, or difficulty in communicating.
Epstein said the children in The Garden programs have lost family members through illness, car accidents, suicides, killings and even from the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
“(Children) may have emotional roadblocks that we adults have also,” said Epstein. “We try to validate the children’s grief and feelings. Sadness is expected. Anger, guilt — when a child thinks he or she could have done something or they fought with the person who died. Relief, when the person who died suffered or their illness made the child uncomfortable. And even happiness, when the person who died was abusive. We do not judge or say what is the right or wrong way to grieve.”
Epstein says the program tries to give the children constructive ways to grieve.
For instance, he said, perhaps the birthday of the deceased parent or sibling could be a day in which to celebrate their life.
“Memories might be one of the topics, so we might make a memory box,” he said. “Self-care is another topic. We might make some worry-beads and talk about constructive ways to grieve. We might write a letter to the person who died, which gives (the children) a chance to say things to the person they might never have been able to say when they were alive. We’ve had people fly kites, and send their messages up the kite strings.”
Epstein also likes to lead a meditative exercise in which the children are taken through a series of relaxation exercises, before visualizing a place where they feel comfortable and safe. “Then I bring them back, and remind them, if they ever need a place in which to feel safe, to think of that place,” he said.
Each week, the groups tackle different topics, geared to the age-level of the participants. This spring’s topics include: “Exploring death — what does it mean?” “Dreams, nightmares, worries” and “Memories/remembering.”
The 10-week sessions for the different age groups are free to families for as long as they need the support. The Garden generally serves about 25 families per year, says Epstein. He said the average participation in Garden programs is about 18 months.
Over the years, he said, some children have formed long-term friendships and even a few marriages have occurred between people who met in these groups.
The next series of sessions for children and the caregivers of grieving children begin Sunday. The Garden also does outreach, although most people don’t want to hear about the program until they need the services, says Epstein.
When asked how do adults know if a child needs these support services, Epstein replies, “If they’ve had a close relative die, it’s always appropriate.”
The Garden is always looking for volunteers. Epstein said volunteer facilitators, like himself, generally work five to six hours during program weeks, and monthly participation as part of the Garden Advisory Board.
The program is also looking for one-day help with its annual fundraiser, “Walk/Run to Remember,” which will be held on April 27.