For our second Charity Highlight of the Year, we got to sit down with Caroline Donelle, the Executive Director of Friends of Learning Through Loss, one of our non-profit partners in #BrokersOfGood and an organization that helps youth work through grief and loss.
We got to discuss how the pandemic has shifted Learning Through Loss’s programming virtually, and how they’ve been able to access more kids in need of help because of it. Check out our Community Chats with Learning Through Loss below:
Question 1: Can you tell us a little about Friends of Learning Through Loss and what you do?
Friends of Living and Learning Through Loss is the official name, but we’re known as Learning Through Loss in the community. We’ve been around since 1994 as a registered Canadian charity that provides grief support and education to youth in the CRD — youth between the ages of 12 and 24. We also provide education to the school setting, to different school districts, to the community, and to kids. We teach them about grief.
Question 2: How did the organization get started?
The woman who started it, Sandra Elder, was a PhD who worked in hospice. She noticed that there was a big gap in services for youth who were grieving and/or bereaved, so she started up a program, which was the Learning Through Loss group program that we’ve been running for 27 years now. This was a way to get kids together in a peer group setting and help them get through their experiences of grief and loss. They’re usually grouped around the same ages, so that the demographics are the same — 13 to 15, 16 to 18 etc. — they share their experiences, learn about grief, and how it’s normal to feel like you think you’re going crazy, but you’re not. It’s okay. These are all normal reactions.
We basically talk about grief and loss the way most people don’t. We talk about how it’s normal to experience loss — we’re all going to experience it, it’s a universal feeling — so we equip kids with the tools to deal with that and to manage their grief and loss experiences. And also to talk about them; to recognize that sometimes you do need to reach out and ask for help. We try to teach people how to be kind to people who are grieving and bereaved: what is the best way to help someone you care about who has lost someone or something really important to them?
Question 3: How have you had to adapt your programming since the pandemic began?
What was really notable for us right off the bat was we switched everything over to a virtual platform. It ended up being an interesting change for us because we started offering short-term individual grief counselling right away. This came about as a way to start providing more counselling to youth who come through our regular programs and could really benefit from some extra support. We thought this closed the gap and provided a circle of support. This was something we had already been working towards before COVID, but got fast forwarded for us.
At the time, I think there were 12 kids who were waiting for the program to begin — the same week we went into lockdown. Of course, we couldn’t leave 12 kids who were coming to us from different situations of grief, so we offered all of them, immediately, individual counselling in the interim while we figured out how we were going to start delivering programs online. Ten of the kids said yes right away, and that ended up working out really well so we were able to get funding through the Victoria Foundation. Since April of last year, close to 40 kids have come through the program through group counselling. The vast majority are dealing with a parental or family loss, so we’ve been a real lifeline to a lot of those kids.
The real myth behind grief is that you will get over it. You’re never going to get over it. If you’ve lost something significant to you, if a youth has lost a parent or a sibling, those are events in your life that stay with you. We do recognize that grief comes in waves, and it comes developmentally with kids. Loss that a youth has had today at the age of 14 will resurface over and over again in different ways. So all of the kids who come through our programs know that they can come back to us or give us a call, if and when the issues of grief become overwhelming for them or they need a little support to get them through.
All the normal societal things we do following a death, for example, are done. All the social isolation. The people who are experiencing loss through this pandemic, their loss is exacerbated by the fact that they’re socially isolated. All the normal rituals that we would normally attend — the funerals, the wakes, the camaraderie, the visiting people, the bringing meals — all of these kind and really useful gestures have been nixed. So, on top of all the grief we are seeing, a lot of these youth are grieving in isolation. And social isolation is a concern to us. These are difficult times to be a youth, to be anyone, grieving.
Question 4: Do you have an uplifting story you can share about how your programming has helped a local youth?
We’ve had some amazing things happen with our counsellors. Ordinarily, counsellors provide these services in person — in a pre-COVID world, they would meet up somewhere and have a conversation. This has gone away now. Our biggest concern at the beginning was, how will this translate to youth? Well, it turns out that youth love the virtual world. No surprise, this is their medium! Because of this transition we’ve had some unusual moments with kids such as a youth being able to pet their dog or cat while engaging with the counsellor. And because they are in their homes they’ll say, “let me show you a picture of my dad,” or, “this is a painting my mom did.” Those are things that would never happen in a counsellor’s office. Suddenly you have these kids going around showing the things that are meaningful to them for their losses. Some of the counselors were quite moved by these things.
The virtual world has also enabled us to expand our services beyond the CRD, farther away than we could have. We’ve been able to provide services to some kids who’ve really needed it.
Question 5: If there is a small-to-medium sized business who would like to support Learning Through Loss, but may not be able to through a monetary donation, how can they get involved?
We don’t use volunteers because of the private and confidential nature of the work we do, so in terms of support, we’d love technical support. We’d love someone to come and do our website. Those types of things would be very advantageous for us.
And while we’re still living in COVID, we’re okay. We recognize too that this medium, the video part, is not for everybody. Not all the kids are comfortable. Some would really like to be back talking face-to-face with people. We intend to resume in-person counselling, but I think we’ll continue with the virtual sessions too because some kids do like it. We’re just happy that we can provide the needed support.