Coping With Death, Kids Help Kids


In the Volcano Room, padded floor to ceiling and packed with fluffy toys, an 8-year-old boy flailed wildly at another child with a tubular pillow, bopping him again and again.

Finally, the boy collapsed on the floor, sweaty and breathless after another exercise in venting his anger over the way his stepfather took his mother away.

“He shot her in the back,” the boy said. “She was alive a little bit, and then she died of a heart attack.”


In a program that has been replicated around the world, children at the Dougy Center use play, crafts or stories to help each other deal with the painful, sometimes violent loss of their loved ones.

The center was founded by Beverly Chappell, a nurse at the Oregon Health Sciences University who observed a 10-year-old boy dying of a brain tumor. The boy began comforting the other sick children he played with.

“She saw that the idea of kids talking to other kids really did normalize the process and helped them deal with it safely,” said Donna Schuurman, the center’s executive director.

In the past 15 years, the Portland center has served more than 10,000 children, ages 3 through 19, and helped set up more than 80 similar peer support programs in the United States, Canada, Ireland, Japan and Australia.

Among them are Kids Place in Oklahoma City, which serves victims of the April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, and Rainbow House in Kobe, Japan, to help survivors of the January 1995 earthquake.

“Our society just doesn’t do a very good job of dealing with death period, and when it comes to kids, people seem to lose all common sense,” Schuurman said.

Adults want to fix it, to make it go away, to tell children to get over it, she said. One schoolteacher told a child distraught over the death of a parent that he was just using it as an excuse to get out of homework.

Children who aren’t allowed to grieve find other ways to vent their emotions: acting up in school or getting into fights. In teenagers, substance abuse or promiscuity are not unusual.

“Unexpressed emotion stays in your body,” Schuurman said. “It’s like putting a lid on a garbage can. But if you keep filling that garbage can, sooner or later, the lid isn’t going to fit any more. That garbage has to go somewhere.”

One quiet, waif-like girl said her grandmother brought her to the Dougy Center because she was crying every day at recess. The 8-year-old said she was upset because her father committed suicide when she was 10 months old.

“He kept the motor running too long. The poison got in him and then it killed him,” she said. “He wanted to die because he didn’t like his emotions.”

Children at the Dougy Center are encouraged to express their emotions in individual, creative and healthy ways: through talking, writing, crafts and play.

There’s a talk circle, where each child is given his or her turn to speak at the start and end of every session.

There’s the Art Room, where children can make crafts or memory boxes.

An 11-year-old girl whose grandmother was shot to death in a robbery a year ago said her box contains “a lot of pictures and old knickknacks she used to have, ceramic knickknacks and stuff.”

There’s a Splatter Wall, marred by angry splotches of paint. It provides an alternative to the Volcano Room, where teenagers can vent their emotions by hitting a punching bag or smacking a stuffed Barney.

“Kids go through 100 feelings at once, and there is no logical pattern,” Schuurman said. “It’s not unusual to have a kid use the punching bag and then fall to his knees and cry, and say, ‘I miss my dad so bad.’ ”

A 10-year-old girl whose father died in a hunting accident just two days after her birthday said she’s both “sad and mad.”

“The guy that he was hunting with mistaked him for a deer,” she said. “His friend has been hunting for 25 years and he didn’t know he wasn’t a deer.”

There’s a playroom with a sandbox and sink. Another room has a huge dollhouse, where kids sometimes act out their family dynamics using action figures.

Some of the toys--tiny coffins and gravestones--seem morbid, but they reflect the children’s reality.

“We’re not teaching them to grieve. We’re allowing them to grieve,” Schuurman said. “Our philosophy is that what helps is having an attitude that you are the expert in your grief.”

Dr. J. William Worden, co-director of Harvard University’s Child Bereavement Study, went with some staff members to set up the clinic for children orphaned by the Japan earthquake. He called the Dougy Center “the premier center for bereaved children in the United States.”

Children arriving at the Dougy Center paint menacing clouds, rain and lightning. Colors are dark. Graveyards abound, and flowers cry black tears.

Later paintings sport bright rainbows, the sun peeking from the clouds and happier memories: the cookies she used to bake, the car he used to drive.

One teenager depicted his father as a radiant angel, in white, with the muscles of a cartoon superhero. His powerful wings lift him skyward.

About 275 children are involved in support groups at any one time. Their visits to the open-ended program span from six months to three years, with an average of about 15 months.

Children themselves know when it’s time to leave. “One day, being at soccer practice is more important,” Schuurman said.

Departing children are given four rocks--three polished rocks and a rough one. The smooth rocks represent the work that they’ve done; the fourth is the rough spot that will always be there.