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When Vikki Skulborstad and her husband became caretakers for a 5-year-old boy after his mother died of cancer, they could relate to his pain firsthand.
In 2013, the Skulborstads lost their daughter, Carli, who spent her 2 1/2 years of life battling a heart defect. Grief was a feeling they knew well, so the family believed they'd be prepared to take in the boy, Nathan, during the midst of his own loss.
And although they were prepared, seeing a young child experience the death of a loved one was still trying, Vikki Skulborstad said.
“It's heartbreaking,” she said, choking up. “We know as adults what it was like to have lost our own daughter. And we are adults. We are capable of processing our emotions. We are capable of understanding what death means. You try to imagine having to go through all of that as a child — it's devastating. Really, really hard to watch.”
Nathan was angry. He was confused. He struggled with behavioral problems at school and in getting along with his peers.
“Any kind of adversity, it would just throw him over the edge,” Skulborstad said.
Enter “The Starfish Program,” which the Skulborstads heard about through family and friends. Karrie Filios, director and co-founder of the program, said the group started 10 years ago to fill a local gap in grief support resources, specifically for children experiencing the death of a loved one.
Most other programs were located closer to Denver, she said.
“It's hard for our kids in Douglas County,” she said, “to get all the way downtown, especially on a weekday.”
The program runs out of New Hope Presbyterian Church in Castle Rock and serves Douglas County families with children, who often have lost a parent, either elementary or middle school age.
The group began its current season on Oct. 2, which families can late-enroll in for two weeks after, and will start its next season in late January.
Starfish works in two phases. First is the support provided to children. When families arrive, Filios said, kids begin their approximate hourlong meetings with a talking circle. They do introductions, such as sharing their name, age and who died, before moving into a grief activity.
“Usually, it's an art activity, or it could be more of a physical activity,” Filios said.
During that time, kids are encouraged to talk about their loss and are taught language to help them express what they are feeling.
“Younger kids, they know the words like sad and mad, but other feelings like guilt or regret, maybe frustration, feeling worried or anxious or relief, those kinds of things they don't really know,” Filios said. “They're experiencing the grief but they don't know how to talk about it.”
Following the grief activity, kids are given free time to burn off energy and play.
The second aspect to the program is for parents. While children work in one group, parents are encouraged to attend a group support session facilitated by a program volunteer. There they learn how to cope with their own feelings, if they too were impacted by the death, and how to support children through the process.
Families are required to apply for the program. Filios said this is to ensure they are the appropriate place for a family. The group, although it provides support, does not provide clinical therapy. For that they can refer families to other resources.
The group setting also isn't ideal for families that very recently experienced a death or a particularly traumatic event, Filiios said. If that's the case, they recommend one-on-one counseling before seeking group support.
Ultimately, the goal of the program is to help families through the grief process — something the country as a whole struggles to do, Filios said.
“Culturally in the Unites States, we don't do grief well. We don't talk about death and dying,” she said. “Then we don't talk about the grief and what it does to us physically and mentally.”
Skulborstad said the program has made a growing impact on her family.
Nathan has found a place where he is first taught there are others like him, but also that there are children and adults alike who understand what he's going through, she said. Nathan is also faring better at school, which traditionally was an emotional time for him.
For Skulborstad, the adult sessions have been instrumental in helping her heal following her daughter's death, and she encourages people to give the program a try if they are in need of grief support.
“Being able to visit with the adults at Starfish has helped me with my own grief as well and I'm so very thankful for that,” she said, explaining the program is most effective at helping people open up. “I think that is one of the things that makes Starfish so special, is there isn't that fear.”
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