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Jessica’s House opens to help grieving children help each other

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POSTED September 19, 2012 12:43 a.m.

When someone close to us dies, silence so often follows.

People don’t know what to say, so they don’t say anything. They don’t want to bring it up, so they don’t ask how you’re feeling. They feel uncomfortable, so they don’t call.

The silence is difficult for anyone, but it can be especially damaging for children who don’t have a place to talk about their loss and their grief. Study after study has found that children without a place or a way to process the loss of a loved one are far more likely to become depressed, have difficulty coping and suffer from substance abuse and addiction.

Now, thanks to Emanuel Medical Center, school-aged children in the greater Turlock area now have their own place to process grief. It’s called Jessica’s House, and it opens this month [April] in downtown Turlock.

“Jessica’s House is based on the model of peer support,” explained Erin Nelson, the executive director of Jessica’s House. “It creates a safe place where children learn they are not alone in their experience.”

Here’s how it works. If a child has faced the death of a parent or sibling, their family comes to an orientation and when they’re ready, they start bringing their child or children to group sessions every other week.

The hour-and-a-half sessions are divided into two halves, with the first 45 minutes talking in small groups, and the second 45 unstructured play with the center’s art, music, puppets and other supplies. Kids will be divided by age into Littles (ages 5 to 8), Middles (ages 9 to 12) and Teens (ages 13 to 18), with each session overseen by professional staff and trained volunteer facilitators.

“For instance, every child would be given the opportunity to answer questions about their loved one, such as ‘If you could tell the person who died something, what would it be?’ or ‘How has your family changed since the death?’” Nelson said.

While the kids meet in various rooms throughout Jessica’s House, their parents or caregivers also meet and share with each other their experiences and strategies for coping. A parent or caregiver must accompany the child when they come to sessions.

Families can come to groups as long as they need to. It’s not an 8-week program or a 12-session class, it’s as long as the child needs to feel OK.

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