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Pandemic funds brought grief care to more Colorado students

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Eric Galatas

(Colorado News Connection) A groundbreaking bereavement service is expanding efforts to reach kids where they are: in schools, churches and other community sites.

Emily Napier, community-based care team manager for Judi's House, which has been providing comprehensive grief care for more than two decades, noted one in 14 Colorado youths will experience the death of a mom, dad, sister or brother by age 18.

She said while the experience of grief is unique for each child, everyone needs to be able to talk about how they are feeling without being judged.

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"Grief is a universal experience," Napier pointed out. "Grief is a normal, healthy reaction to a loss. So it makes sense to feel sadness, or feel anger, or even worry or confusion. All of those different emotions are normal, and expected, and OK."

In addition to providing grief counseling in-house and in middle schools, Judi's House was able to tap pandemic funding to offer services at elementary schools. One curriculum serves third through fifth grade students, and "Judi's Rainbow" was created to provide therapy tailored to the needs of kindergarten through second grade students.

Napier acknowledged much of the work is about breaking through social stigma associated with death, assuring kids that "dead" and "dying" are not bad words. Middle school-age kids process their grief through journaling, expressing thoughts and feelings verbally, and learning coping skills, and Napier said what works for kindergarten-age children, who grieve just as much as older kids and adults, is much different.

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© iStock - EtiAmmos

"How do kids at this level really understand and take in the world?" Napier emphasized. "A lot of that is through creative expression. It's through reading children's books that have grief and loss themes in them, and kids being able to see themselves in those characters and feel less alone."

Founded in 2002 by Brian and Brook Griese, Judi's House was named after the former Denver Bronco quarterback's mother, who died when he was 12. Napier noted bereavement services, which are provided at no cost to families, give kids, and adults, a variety of tools they can pull from their coping toolbox.

"So things like 'getting it out;' coping activities that will involve a physical release," Napier explained. "Maybe that's being active in sports, punching a pillow, moving your body. Sometimes grief can feel really overwhelming in our bodies, and so being able to get it out is a way to cope."