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Childhood grief often an overlooked problem

March 25, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Experts met in Pasadena to address the mental health of an overlooked population.

The goal of the annual conference on childhood grief and traumatic loss is to address the needs of children who have lost a parent or someone just as close. Helping children deal with grief is an issue that's often ignored.

It's been two years since his mother died, but her memory is still fresh in the mind of 17-year-old Erick Snyder.

"It's been tough. For a while, I didn't really want to talk to anyone about it," said Erick.

Mary Snyder passed away after a long battle with breast cancer. For a while, Erick would go from feelings of isolation to anger.

"I kind of learned that in the times that I was angry it didn't really help anything," said Erick.

His dad recognized he needed help, so he called Hathaway-Sycamores Center for Child Grief.

"The first thing I ask children when they come in is: What is your job? What are you supposed to be doing? And of course, if mom or dad dies, they think it's taking care of the other parent. I say No, your job is to play, and at the center of what we teach parents is how to be self-sufficient, how to be both parents," said Joan Cochran, founder and executive director of Hathaway-Sycamores Center for Child Grief.

Five hundred social workers and grief counselors from around the country met at the Pasadena Convention Center to learn new ways to help this overlooked population. Many people don't realize that kids exhibit grief in far different ways than adults.

"They will tell you that's it's just really, really hard. Girls are more vocal usually. But boys, they get mad. They lash out," said Cochran.

For Erick, Cochran says the key was to help him reconnect with the joy in his life. He meets weekly with other teens who have experienced the same loss. They talk about their feelings, but they spend more time laughing and playing.

"You know, I didn't have to keep missing my mom inside. I could share it with someone else. And so it was a little less of a burden on me," said Erick.

And even the smallest memories of his mom give Erick comfort.

"The good times and the little things, really," said Erick.

The Hathaway-Sycamores child grief specialists work with the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services.

They go to schools and with kids in foster homes, and are often among the first responders in times of tragedy.