By 5 p.m. in the isolated campground, Paulina knew something was wrong. Her mom and cousin had left at noon to pick up groceries, and had not yet returned.
Paulina kept her younger brother busy, but confided her fears to her younger sister. By 3 a.m., when the police showed up, Paulina was frantic. When they reached home, their grandparents confirmed her worst fears. There had been an accident and Mom did not survive.
“It was life changing,” said Paulina, now 18. “We now live with our grandparents, and they are 86 and 72. Since I’m the oldest of us three, I feel like I have to take care of the other two, and be strong.”
For two years, Paulina, her sister Caitlin, 16, and brother Travis, 11, have had only each other to help them deal with their grief. Thanks to a new club that started in November, Carter’s Clubhouse, they now have a place where they can be with others their age who have experienced the pain of losing a loved one.
“I suffered from severe depression when Mom passed away,” said Kimberly, 17, whose mother died five years ago of cancer. “I still cry, but being able to talk to other kids who have lost their parents feels a lot better.”
The club is named in honor of Carter James Rhodes, the son of HospiceCare Inc., nurse Tricia Rhodes. Carter died unexpectedly at 5 months of age in 2005 from acute lymphocytosis of infancy. The disease caused an over-abundance of white blood cells in his body.
Rhodes suggested the clubhouse to her co-workers when she realized that her then 8-year-old son, Anthony, needed some way to deal with his grief that did not make him feel different. At that time, there was nothing available for him.
“Talking one on one was intimidating and made him stand out from other kids,” Rhodes said. “Regardless of their age, the kids here have something in common. This is something they can share.”
HospiceCare Inc. staff spend their days caring for patients who have terminal illness and helping the families deal with the dying process. They embraced the idea of working specifically with children and developed the new program. It began with 13 children and now has 47. While some families have participated in hospice, the group is open to others as well.
Anthony said that when his beloved little brother died, it was something his friends could not understand. As a result, they did not know how to comfort him. He felt alone in his grief.
“I was feeling really sad, and I was trying to be strong for my mom,” he said. “Carter meant a lot to me. I changed my team jersey number to 18 — his birthday — and now if I ever get hurt on the field, I know Carter’s looking out for me.”
Anthony, now 12, said the plan for Carter’s Clubhouse excited him, because he knew he would make new friends with people who knew just what he was going through.
“We can help each other,” he said. “You can talk about what happened and what you were feeling. Things you don’t want to tell your parents.
“It’s better when you talk about it.”
The club gave Anthony and his family a way to work together to develop something positive from their pain and find some purpose for their loss, Rhodes explained. Her sister, Janine Boyer, helped out by creating the logo that is on the back of the T-shirts.
The Carter’s Clubhouse kids and their caregivers meet from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. the first Monday of each month in the North College Center on the campus of Mineral Area College (MAC). There is no cost, however, interested children must be enrolled by calling 573-701-2504.
The clubs give children a place to share their experiences with other children who have similar stories. Meetings include activities such as storytelling, letter writing, drama, art, music, and crafts, which are used to help children express their grief.
Handling the holidays
On Monday, the meeting began as usual with children sitting in a circle and their parents behind them. Many of the children and caregivers wore light blue T-shirts. In addition to the logo on the back — a drawing of a house with three children inside — the shirt includes the words, “Carter’s Clubhouse, A Place for Grieving Children and Families” and the phone number for HospiceCare Inc.
Gayla Roberts, HospiceCare Inc.’s director of bereavement services, placed two candles in the center of the group.
“The first one is in memory of the loved ones we have lost,” she reminded the children. “The second one is for what we will do in the future.”
Roberts said that recent holidays — Mothers’ Day, Easter, Memorial Day and Father’s Day have been difficult for some people who are grieving. Still ahead are more holidays, particularly Thanksgiving and Christmas.
She asked the children to share ideas about getting through the holidays or include their loved ones in some manner.
Some children said they decorated the grave with flowers. Others had balloon release events or visited places they traditionally had gone as a family. One boy has a jar with some of his dad’s ashes, and he helped build a memorial garden by his bedroom window.
“We put flowers on my mom’s grave and we sing “Happy Birthday” to her on her birthday, one girl said.
Rhodes said her family adopts a family at Christmas that has a child Carter’s age. They buy presents and make sure their adopted family has a good holiday, she added.
Some children said they make grave covers, or grave blankets of greenery and items that represented what their loved one had enjoyed. Rhodes reminded them that planting a tree and watching that life grow sometimes is helpful.
“We put a ceramic angel in Carter’s tree,” she told the group. As it grew, the angel became part of the tree.”
Other suggestions included making a memory quilt from the person’s clothes, or making a stuffed bear out of a favorite shirt. Starting something in the loved one’s name or carrying on that person’s tradition also are ways to get through the holidays, Rhodes said.
“My cousins’ grandma used to bake tons of cookies every year,” Roberts said. “Now my cousins get together and bake all those cookies. It’s a way to incorporate what a loved one liked into your activities.”
Rhodes told the children that people might tell them how they are supposed to react to their loss, but that they need to follow their hearts.
“What is normal is whatever seems normal to you,” she explained. “You don’t have to justify it to anyone else.
Rhodes said people often put conditions on grief and say things such as, “You should be over that by now,” or “You need to move one.”
Neither suggestion is helpful, she added.
“It’s never over, and you never move on,” she said. “But you learn how to cope, and you learn by someone instilling coping methods like we’re doing here, instead of unhealthy grief.”
Dealing with loss
The club is creating a calendar that will raise awareness of Carter’s Clubhouse and the grief that children experience as well as adults. Club members on Monday worked on drawings to illustrate each month. They also decorated the covers of journals that would be distributed to family members with loved ones in hospice to record their feelings.
The journal covers were bright and cheery, with messages of hope.
The calendar drawings focused on the youths’ feelings about their own loss. Several split the page in two. One half had drawings of happy times that came before their loss, symbolized by the sun, trees in full bloom and green grass. The other half featured dead flowers, leafless trees, and rain clouds and illustrated the sadness they felt.
David drew a picture of a big hill with a horse, a dog and two figures representing himself and his 16-year-old cousin Cherish. Before she died, he and Cherish were very close, the 8-year-old said.
After the teenager died, David did not talk about her until he joined Carter’s Clubhouse, David’s mother said.
Julian drew a picture of his dad, who played bass guitar in a rock band. The 8-year-old is growing his hair long, as his father wore his.
“This place is fun,” he said of the Clubhouse.
The members are in different places in their grief. While Paulina struggles to be the strong one in her family and focus on the good memories, sister Caitlin struggles with her anger. It doesn’t help when she hears her peers criticize their parents or say, “I hate my mom!”
“They don’t realize that someday, their mom will be gone, and they are going to regret saying that,” she said.
Emily said the club activities are helpful when she misses her grandmother and confidant.
“We cooked, we talked, we sat around being lazy and watched T.V.,” she said. “I miss that I can’t see her.”
The first project Emily made in the club meetings was a picture frame she painted and decorated. She put flowers on the frame in honor of her grandmother’s love of the outdoors, sports-related items to remind her of how her grandmother loved to watch Emily’s brother play sports, and added a photo of herself, her grandmother and Emily’s aunt.
“This is a good place to learn how to deal with (grief),” she said. “It sort of comforts you. And it’s tons of fun.”
Andrew said the club has really helped him and can help others as well. His advice to other grieving children?
“It’s a really exciting place. Don’t be shy. Come!”
For more information or to volunteer with Carter’s Clubhouse, call Roberts at 573-701-2504. Donations may be sent to Roberts at Carter’s Clubhouse, P. O. Box 1000, Park Hills, MO 63601. Make checks payable to Carter’s Clubhouse.
Paula Barr is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-431-2010, ext. 172 or at email@example.com.