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Special Friends Help Grieving Children With Loss

Ashton Fisher (left) counsels one of her clients.

Graduate student Ashton Fisher (left) counsels one of her clients.

By Jay Fields

Tricia McClam tells the story of a fourth grader in east Knoxville who shows up early for an appointment in her school’s library.

When asked why she’s there, she says, “I’m looking for my friend.”

Her friend is a graduate student who meets with her each week, reads to her, plays with her, and listens to her, as part of a grief outreach program begun in the fall of 2008 by the University of Tennessee.

The children in the program are dealing with major, usually stunning, instances of loss and grief. They face circumstances that involve divorce, abandonment, suicide, murder, custody battles, or a parent who’s been taken off to prison.

“Incredibly tough issues,” says Dr. McClam, professor and associate head of Educational Psychology and Counseling at the university. “The referrals I get, from school counselors, from principals, from social workers, take my breath away. It might be an uncle who was stabbed, a family member with a terminal illness, or a parent who died during the night.”

“Three of the four children I’ve met with,” says graduate student Ashton Fisher, “have fathers in jail. And when you have one or both parents missing, it can have a major, major impact on self-esteem. They want someone to trust. They want to know that whatever they say is okay, that it won’t get them into trouble.”

The Little Things

For 25 graduate students in the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences engaged in grief counseling in the spring of 2009, signs of success may show up in “the little things,” says Dr. McClam.

Tricia McClam

Tricia McClam

“We all get together every Thursday morning and meet and talk about what’s going on for an hour and a half,” she says. “You might hear someone say that their client had started to talk, or ‘we had a great session,’ or ‘my client showed up yesterday.’ Little things.”

Little things that add up.

“The issues these children face have a major impact on performance in school and peer relationships,” Dr. McClam says. “We stay with them until they reach a point where they’re back on track academically and you can see behavioral changes in the classroom.”

“You cater to where they are,” says Ashton, “You give them the tools they need; help them refocus on strengths. Then that ability gives them the control to move forward. It spills over into every other area of their lives.”

In the Beginning

Grief outreach from UT—what Dr. McClam calls “the most powerful kind of learning”—began as a simple, heart-stirring experience.

It began with a child named Aliyah at Sarah Moore Greene Elementary School where Dr. Bob Rider, dean of the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences, had been reading with students every Wednesday for four years.

When Dr. Rider asked the first-grader to read a book about Mother’s Day aloud to him, she told him her mother had died on the previous Valentine’s Day. Because of her grief, she had been held back in school, not adjusting socially and academically.

Bob Rider

Bob Rider

“I was at a loss for words,” Dr. Rider says. “I was thinking, ‘We have wonderful counseling programs at the university and other support services.’ I wanted to know how we could help.”

On October 1, 2008, the program that Dr. Rider’s experience triggered began accepting referrals. Graduate students trained to become school psychologists, mental health counselors, and school counselors signed on. And they continue to sign on, as part of a cohesive team, taking an active role in choosing those clients they believe they can best help.

“Our students come into the experience committed,” says Dr. McClam. “They have to be. They know how important it is.”

Creating an Outlet

“It’s a very individual thing, getting to know your client,” says Ashton. “You don’t know how resistant they might be to being with you, to talking. In the four cases I’ve had, there was no resistance. These kids were hurting and they needed an outlet.”

The artfulness in drawing out the thoughts and questions and hurt the children carry is taken up in listening and patience.

“We talk about things and we skirt some things,” says Angela Mounger, another graduate student who worked with four children, “but if you listen, you can hear between the lines and ask a question and get something going.

“I was meeting with a boy who’d lost his father and he talked about a movie he didn’t like. I asked him what it was about and he said it was about a boy who’d lost his dad. That opened things up. Behind the silent stretches, there can be intense sadness and anger. So you want to give them a vocabulary, a way to label what they’re feeling,” Angela says. “They’re mostly in a family where everyone is hurting over what happened, so they have no one to talk to.

They can’t bring up anything at home. As a result, they’re looking for a safe place.”

The grief initiative has largely focused on a single area of high poverty, some 16 square miles in east Knoxville, designated an “Empowerment Zone” in 1998 under a Clinton administration urban rebuilding program. But Dr. McClam is also receiving referrals from other areas of Knox County, saying that the number of children dealing with grief and loss in our community “is much greater than we anticipated.”

As Angela Mounger puts it, “I was overwhelmed by the amount of need out there.”

Beneficiaries of the program are not only the children themselves and their families, but also the graduate students who pour in their skills and time, commitment and heart; who wait patiently for signs.

“There’s no timeline. It’s a process. We go at our client’s pace. And, moving that way, we watch them grow,” says Angela. “It’s very rewarding.”

“They’re resilient,” Ashton says. “It’s also impossible not to love them.”

For information and referrals, Dr. McClam may be reached at 865-974-3845 or mcclam@utk.edu.