On a cold and gloomy winter day, David Deerfeeder, bereavement services manager at Yolo Hospice (YH), received a startling and tragic phone call from a local elementary school. A 12-year-old sixth-grader (we’ll call him Sammy) had unexpectedly died the day before.
The boy’s classmates, as well as his ninth-grade sister, were in shock. Their friend and brother, who was described as a jokester, athlete and a warm sensitive soul, had suddenly vanished without explanation.
The school, aware of YH’s pediatric bereavement program called Stepping Stones was reaching out for help.
“Some kids were in complete denial. Others thought that the news of their classmate’s death was a prank and that he would show up at school the next day,” according to Tracy Keenan who works with David as a YH bereavement specialist.
Tracy was apprehensive walking into the school since she did not know what to expect. Once there, she quickly observed that the school climate was surprisingly open. She says, “I was amazed at how the students cared for each other. It was evident that the school fosters a positive social climate where students can be themselves and support one another.”
After getting a clear read on the students’ level of grief, Tracy and David asked them to share stories about Sammy. That simple request proved to be an important breakthrough moment. Regrets, fears, tears and questions all came to the surface.
“One friend talked about his guilt because of a recent fight he had with Sammy. Some of the big tough boys broke down crying,” says Tracy. “The kids started talking about other losses, and their worries about losing someone else. A few started talking about their own mortality and their fear of death.”
Tracy and David brought with them some tools: magic markers and paper so that students could draw pictures of Sammy or images that represented their own feelings. One student drew a picture of Sammy in a chicken suit because that was how he dressed up for Halloween. Someone else drew a picture of Sammy on a skateboard.
Because children do not always have the words to describe what they’re feeling the Stepping Stones team uses a combination of art, activities and ritual. They often work with clay, write letters, tell stories, share mementos and light candles. “These can be effective ways to encourage children to open up and express themselves,” according to Tracy. “Children love to connect with other children who are experiencing similar losses. It is quite magical.”
At the end of a full day of providing one-on-one counseling and group support at the elementary school, David and Tracy packed up their art supplies and other materials. On their way out of the building, David waved goodbye to one of the boys who he earlier counseled. As the boy was getting into his mother’s car, he stopped, turned around and walked up to David. He shook his hand and said, “Thank you. You’re pretty cool.”
Just weeks before David and Tracy were asked to offer support to the students of this school, they coordinated an alternative event for other area children who are traveling through grief. They asked children who are participating in Stepping Stones to attend a celebration, and to bring clothing that belonged to the person they lost. While the children played and ate together, four volunteer seamstresses created pillows from the clothes that each child brought.
When the volunteers were finished assembling their pillows, they presented one to a young boy who was beaming when he saw that is was made from his Dad’s New York Yankees sweatshirt. Also present at the event was a three-year-old who was in his mom’s car when they were in an auto accident that took her life. When a pillow made from his mom’s flannel blouse was handed to him, he jumped out of his seat, grabbed the pillow with a big squeeze, and yelled “mommy.”
Fourteen years ago, Tracy Keenan’s own son participated in the Stepping Stones program after her mom died of cancer at the age of 62. “I was pregnant when mom was dying. She so badly wanted to live long enough to see her new grandbaby, but it wasn’t meant to be.” After her mom died, she sought out grief support through Yolo Hospice for both herself and for her son. She says, “All these years later, he still has the clay mask he made in Stepping Stones.”
At the age of 12, David Deerfeeder lost his own father. He says, “I never imagined I would eventually be working with children suffering from profound loss. Life has come full circle.” Over the years, David has provided support for oncology patients and for people living with AIDS. He is also a priest in the Old Catholic Church. When asked why his work is rewarding, David says, “It’s a sacred trust to be present with people who are grieving. I’ve learned that joy and grief can coexist, and that there are always unexpected gifts in the day-to-day work we do.”