A Supportive Umbrella for Grieving Children

by Sabrina Mudryk | 11.17.21 | Features, In Focus

A nine year old girl whose parents have divorced steps into a room and sits next to another child, an eight year old boy whose mom has just passed away. An older lady walks into the room with coloured jars labelled with different feelings: red for angry, blue for sad, green for scared, yellow for […]

A nine year old girl whose parents have divorced steps into a room and sits next to another child, an eight year old boy whose mom has just passed away. An older lady walks into the room with coloured jars labelled with different feelings: red for angry, blue for sad, green for scared, yellow for happy, and purple for loved. 

She instructs the children to pour each jar that they are feeling into a clear bowl. The nine year old girl pours in a little of each, so does the eight year old boy. The resulting colour of the mixture is brown-ish in hue.

The older lady explains that sometimes we feel so many emotions that it can be hard to tell what we are feeling, but that they all come from somewhere. She adds water to it, explaining that each time they talk about their feelings they can make it feel a little less confusing.

With each glass of water she adds, the brown mixture becomes clearer.

. . .

It’s easy to see the differences in the lives of these children—one whose parents have divorced and one whose mother has passed—but what do these kids have in common?

Isabel VanGrootheest can provide some insight. She is a woman in her fifties with intensely kind brown eyes. She is soft-spoken, but when she speaks the room listens. VanGrootheest has been a part of Rainbows, a nonprofit international organization, for 25 years, and is currently a Director of Rainbows Canada and Coordinator of Rainbows Nanaimo.

“I don’t think there’s a program quite like it in Nanaimo,” VanGrootheest says. “There are a lot of specialized programs and Rainbows is really a little bit different. We all talk about feelings, how to cope with them and how to navigate loss and grief in our lives, but with peer support-based groups it’s all about understanding that you’re not the only one. You are not alone in this journey, and you’re also not the only one who is dealing with loss. And that is a very, very important message to anyone who is in this.”

VanGrootheest explains what the kids in the Rainbows program have in common is grief, which forms a basis for Rainbows and their peer support groups. The organization’s mission is to provide a supportive space to help children grow after experiencing grief or loss. 

Rainbows Canada has Rainbows program locations all over Canada. They aren’t limited to just elementary-aged children—there are also groups for preschool-aged children, adolescents, college students, and single parents or stepparents. The organization has been around since 1983 and is volunteer driven, with no cost to the families involved.

Rainbows uses proven developmental research methods to provide community-based and school-based peer support programs to children undergoing grief. School-based programs are usually conducted once a week for twelve weeks during school hours with a trained Rainbows facilitator. 

Community-based programs also occur weekly and are usually located in a church or other location that is willing to provide the space for the duration of the twelve week program. Children meet for Rainbows in these buildings where they are usually divided into groups of three to six. They are given activities each week decided by the voluntary facilitator of that group. 

The activities are based on topics common with children dealing with grief and loss, such as anger, fear, stepfamilies, and coping. For example, if the topic is anger, the facilitator might bring in balloons for children to blow up to represent the anger swelling inside them, and demonstrate how letting out anger—the air in the balloon—helps them feel less full of negative emotions.

Facilitators play an important role in guiding the conversation to help children connect. All potential facilitators must complete a mandatory workshop before volunteering with Rainbows to help individuals better understand the organization’s vision and what the role of a facilitator entails.  

“[Facilitators] need to care about kids—care about their grief. You have to like kids and love to hang out with them,” VanGrootheest says. “You have to be a good listener … It’s not giving advice. It’s not judging or telling them how to do it or when to do it.”

“You’re not giving them the tissues, you are providing the box that, when they feel ready, they will grab their own tissues from,” she says.  

VanGrootheest recognizes that grief is incredibly personal, and that children are especially vulnerable during the grieving period. 

“Kids learn the most by learning how to make their own choices,” she says. “They’re amazing—just give them the opportunity.”

Ashley Therrien, a Psychology major from VIU who graduated in 2020, has been volunteering at Rainbows Nanaimo for roughly three years. She describes her experience at Rainbows as a predominantly positive one despite being challenging at times.

“I absolutely love being a facilitator,” Therrien says. “Part of my personality and what I love to do is [help] kids, and it’s a really good way to help support kids who are going through a lot. It warms my heart knowing I’m doing something good for the community.”

Therrien’s advice for prospective volunteers is to be flexible (each group is going to be a little different from the others) and reliable. Rainbows is a 12 week program and it is important to be committed to showing up every week.

Most importantly, be sure that you actually like working with kids. The kids that come into Rainbows are already very vulnerable. Many of them feel like the situation they are in is their own fault, and some feel as though no one cares for them. Having a supportive facilitator is key to their growth.

A graduated VIU Sociology and English student, Kennady Mathers, has been volunteering at Rainbows Nanaimo for about two years. Being a facilitator has changed her career path, she had originally wanted to go into teaching. However, Rainbows helped to show her the rewarding, broader world of volunteering, which made her more interested in community based work.

Mathers reflects on her time at Rainbows highly. She loves to see families coming together, bringing their kids to these programs each week, and how parents and children bond outside of Rainbows. 

“It’s such a great experience, and you only volunteer two or three hours a week. It’s so small but it makes such a big difference for these people,” Mathers says. “You get to build your own little community with other facilitators and coordinators, and it introduces you to other programs in town that you might be interested in. I encourage everyone to explore it.”

Confidentiality is strictly enforced at Rainbows to help ensure the safety and privacy of its vulnerable members. Although facilitators form a community amongst themselves, their contact with the parents of the children in their groups is restricted to maintain a child’s privacy and trust. 

Facilitators are not allowed to refer to the children in their groups by name to anyone outside their group; they are not to discuss specific topics a child talked about in their group, or the circumstances of the children amongst themselves or anyone else. Afterwards, there is no contact between the facilitators and the kids in their groups.

Mathers explains that one of the most difficult parts is getting to the end of the 12 week program. Facilitators see these very vulnerable kids grow so much in such a short period of time, and then watch as they go out to explore the world again.

“It’s so exciting,” she says, “but it can be really sad on both parts saying goodbye to the kids and the kids saying goodbye to you.”

. . .

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned two children, a nine-year-old girl dealing with her parents’ divorce and a boy dealing with the death of his mother. Although their situations seem different, at their fundamental core, both children are experiencing loss. 

When I was nine years old, I was in the Rainbows program because of my parent’s divorce. Looking back on my experience, I vaguely remember some of the fun activities I did, but more than that, I remember the face and the story of an eight-year-old boy that I connected with in my group. 

My own experience as a child was a contributing factor in my decision to volunteer at Rainbows. There is value in peer support groups, and I have experienced it firsthand. As adults, the world can feel unfair and incomprehensible. For children, it can feel scary not having the words to understand their feelings, or to know what feelings are okay or normal. Knowing what is or isn’t their fault can be confusing. 

In a peer support group, they can look to other children their age that are feeling similar ways and feel a connection. They can see that there are people in their communities who care about them, which contributes to their ability to cope with difficulties in their lives.

In Rainbows, when the girl whose parents divorced says “I miss my mom,” the boy across from her whose mother passed away says, “Me, too.” 

“We hear the kids say ‘Me, too’ and just see that stress level go right down,” VanGrootheest says. “I believe that a peer support group is a really great way for kids not to feel that there is something wrong with them when things are really hard. Look, there are other kids. You are not alone. It’s a great message for them.”

I remember that “Me, too” moment when I was nine. It was so simple. I don’t think I thought much of it at the time, but as I look back I remember feeling a weight lift off, a sort of feeling like less of the world was out to get me, and it helped me get back to feeling more like a kid again. 

Almost anyone who has volunteered at Rainbows will tell you that this seemingly simple “Me, too” is the sweetest sound a facilitator could hear.

If you would like more information about signing yourself or your child up for Rainbows, or about volunteering as a facilitator with Rainbows, contact VanGrootheest at rainbowsnanaimo@gmail.com or via the Rainbows Nanaimo website.

Sabrina is a fifth-year Psychology and Creative Writing student. Her poem "They Are Waiting" won last year's Portent Prize and was featured in Portal's 2021 Magazine. She loves exploring Vancouver Island, telling people about the UFO Landing Pad in her hometown, and is a wannabe free diver. In her last year of schooling she has realized just how much potential there is in being a student at VIU.

""You’re not giving them the tissues, you are providing the box that, when they feel ready, they will grab their own tissues from.""
"In Rainbows, when the girl whose parents divorced says “I miss my mom,” the boy across from her whose mother passed away says, “Me, too.”"

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