Loss can take different forms, each carrying with it a heavy bundle of difficult emotions. It can be hard to express these emotions in a healthy way that helps a person grieve but does not consume their life, responsibilities and goals. This can be especially true for children and youth. That’s where art comes in. The Youth Resiliency program at Northwest Colorado Health uses creative expression – drawing, painting, writing, storytelling, poetry and music – to help preschool through college-age students process many different types of loss including death and divorce as well as loss related to family abuse, addiction and mental health issues.
“If you don’t feel like you can talk about it, you’ve got to find a way to get emotions out,” said Katy Thiel, who leads the program in Routt County schools. “Art is a great way for them to express themselves and also a great way for us to teach them coping skills.” Thiel is a master’s level social worker. Sandy Beran, a licensed pastoral counselor, leads the program in Moffat County. Both are trained in techniques specific to grief and loss.
Loss education groups are available in elementary, middle and high schools throughout Routt and Moffat counties. Thiel and Beran work with school counselors to gauge need and organize groups, which meet once per week for six to eight weeks. Students in each group are similar in age and the type of loss they are experiencing. Groups are held during school hours. This makes it easier for students to attend and also provides them an opportunity for emotional expression during school to help them better focus in the classroom. “When a child is dealing with a difficult loss, it’s hard to concentrate,” Thiel said. “This gives them an outlet each week to express themselves.”
Creative activities help Thiel and Beran teach students different ways to approach loss and their feelings. Having students create masks, for example, is a chance to talk about how we manage our different roles in life. Sometimes we have to put on a mask to get a job done, but we have to know when take off the mask and find a support system to help address personal challenge. Doing this with others can help a student feel less alone. “You never know the effect a particular circumstance of loss has on a child,” Beran said. “Having a place for them to hear how others are affected allows them to evaluate their own situation.”
The goal is to build students’ confidence and understanding of their loss so it doesn’t define who they are and their potential to succeed in school and in life. Without support and tools, students can become isolated and depressed and may turn to drugs, alcohol or other negative means to cope. This can affect their learning ability and result in chronic health problems in adulthood. Thiel and Beran also lead classes in middle and high schools to proactively help students understand how to deal with loss they encounter in life. “We all suffer loss, one way or another,” Beran said. “This gives them a safe place to think about resources that are there and also how to support friends and when to let adults know that someone is struggling.”
As Northwest Colorado Health’s Youth Resiliency program continues to grow, there will be more opportunities for support for youth and parents who would like to help their children. Thiel and Beran are working with the Boys and Girls Club and looking for other ways to provide loss education groups in the summer. For more information about Youth Resiliency groups and classes, contact Katy Thiel (Routt County programs) at 970-871-7628 or Sandy Beran (Moffat County programs) at 970-871-7682.