A Hopeful Place for Grieving Families

At Katy’s Kids, support in the wake of loss
Families shared a meal at a Katy’s Courage session at the Children’s Museum of the East End in Bridgehampton. The peer support group is for children, teens, young adults, and their families grieving the death of a loved one. Judy D’Mello

Lessons about family rarely unfold in dramatic thunderclaps. But death has a way of clarifying what is important and what is not.

“I’d like to share something,” said a sweet-voiced 11-year-old boy with long hair spilling out of a baseball cap, in one of the art rooms at the Children’s Museum of the East End earlier this month.

“Great, Max, we’d love to hear it,” said a woman seated around the table along with five other children and several adults.

“When my dad died about five and a half years ago,” continued Max, “I felt I would have no one to talk to. But now I have a stepdad in my life and I feel, like, ‘Yes! I have someone I can talk to!’ ”

“Awesome, Max!” said the woman and gave the boy a high-five. “By sharing your thoughts, you’re really helping others.”

The group is Katy’s Kids, a four-year-old peer support group for children, teens, young adults, and their families who are grieving the death of a loved one. It began as an offshoot of the nonprofit organization Katy’s Courage, which was founded in 2012 by James and Brigid Collins Stewart following the death of their 12-year-old daughter, Katy, from a rare form of liver cancer. Katy’s Courage serves as a fund-raising and awareness-building operation, hosting regular local fund-raisers, such as the ever-popular annual Katy’s Courage 5K run to support pediatric cancer research. It also offers annual school scholarships and helps fund this group of Katy’s Kids, which meets twice monthly at CMEE.

  “We knew firsthand that this sort of support group was needed out here,” said Ms. Stewart, who was in the room with Max and the other kids around the table, while her husband mingled with family members in the museum’s common space. “Our son was 6 when Katy died.” 

Ms. Stewart, who is the assistant principal at the Montauk School, credits her co-workers for exposing her to alternative approaches, other than psychotherapy, when it came to dealing with grieving children. The Montauk School faculty sent the family of three, all expenses paid, to the Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas, during spring break after Katy’s death. It was there that they learned about healing techniques for children based around play, and the ability to express grief through arts such as painting, drawing, music, poetry, dance, movement, and writing. 

The Stewarts were then introduced to the Dougy Center, the first national center in the United States to provide peer support groups for grieving children and families, which was founded in 1982 in Portland, Ore. After a visit to the facility, the couple knew they needed to bring this model of grief therapy for kids back to the East End.

Until a few decades ago, the accepted belief was that children should be shielded from the concept of death. But at the Dougy Center, and at a growing number of grief centers around the country, the opposite view — that children should be as involved in the grieving process as adults are — is upheld and promoted, reflecting a belief that children cope better when they can recognize loss as a universal experience and are allowed to mourn in the company of relatives and peers.

And so, in the fall of 2015, with the generous support of the Andrew Sabin Foundation, and Steve Long, the president of CMEE, Katy’s Kids opened its doors, offering children a place to discuss death without feeling self-conscious or worrying about making friends feel uncomfortable. It was not designed to be a therapy session. There would be lots of playtime for the kids, who today range from ages 7 to 13, open discussions with trained volunteers and mental health professionals, pizza time for the children, and a full buffet dinner for family members.

“I saw an ad for Katy’s Kids in The East Hampton Star,” said Danielle Bellanoue, whose husband died in the summer of 2013. The family, which included Maxim, who was 6 at the time, and Pai, then 2, lived on a tiny resort island off the coast of Honduras, where her husband, and the children’s father, owned a scuba diving operation. After her husband’s death, Ms. Bellanoue moved with her children to East Hampton, where her parents had retired.

“It came at a really good time. Each of us was processing grief in a unique and different way,” she said. “We simply don’t have an emotional language for grief and for us to suddenly discover this community of similar people dealing with similar problems was so important.” Ms. Bellanoue, who went back to college for a nursing degree and recently started working at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, said that she and her children have rarely missed a session. “Part of our lives will always be reckoning with loss, so to have somewhere to go where the kids can have a bit of fun, and they fed us. . . ,” said Ms. Bellanoue, trailing off before adding, “Hope is offered here by sharing and that’s so positive. This is truly a gift.”

Sharon Burns is the group’s volunteer facilitator, helping to spearhead the tone and flow of the sessions. Ms. Burns, who has a background as an art therapist and counselor, was sent to the Dougy Center, like all volunteers at Katy’s Kids, to be trained in the center’s unique model for peer support.

Carl Brandl is another volunteer who has been involved from the beginning. Mr. Brandl, who is the director of student support services at the Ross School, was a counselor at Pierson Middle School in Sag Harbor, which Katy Stewart attended when she died.

“A death of a child can really finish someone off,” he said last week. “I have a tremendous respect for what [the Stewarts] are doing.”

The collective goal of the organization is to advocate Katy’s Kids so that more grieving families become aware of how it works and to take advantage of its services if needed. 

“Ultimately, we’d love to have our own place,” said Mr. Stewart, East Hampton High School’s health teacher and a longtime coach. “But for now we are so grateful to CMEE to have this space where kids and adults can come and feel safe.”

Wednesday’s session closed with circle time in a playroom colorfully decorated like a scene from a children’s fairy tale. Each child was asked to name his or her best quality.

“I’m an optimist,” said Robert, the Stewart’s son, who is now 13 and, according to his mother, has taken on a leadership role in the group.

“I’m energetic,” said Max.

“You’re all pretty awesome,” said Ms. Burns.