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Dear Grief: ‘You don’t have to stay. I’m happy without you.’

Adventures with Grief Workshop

Kenzie’s Gift founder and CEO Nic Russell took her ‘Adventures with Grief Workshop’ to John McGlashan College in April, encouraging students to talk about grief and loss.

One fine April afternoon, 160 young students at Dunedin’s John McGlashan College, sat down to write letters to grief. Under the guidance of Nic Russell, Adventures with Grief Workshop facilitator, these 16 to 18 year old boys tackled a subject regarded as ‘taboo’ in our society, and one that children and young people are often left to deal with on their own.

- Dear grief –things may be tough now but things will get better
- Dear grief – yeah, nah, not a fan
- Dear grief – I am never going to face you alone
- Dear grief - I can outlast you

Glen Clark, a Dean at the College, had noticed an increase in the number of students struggling with grief and loss issues. “It’s a serious topic. What is the right thing to say, and do? I needed to know more about how to handle it.”

Talking about grief can be tough. It’s a subject Nic Russell is all too familiar with. Her two-year-old daughter Mackenzie was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer in 2005. Two months later, Nic was told she had breast cancer. Mother and daughter underwent extensive and harsh treatments. Sadly, Kenzie died in December 2005.  Through this experience, Nic realised there was a need for greater understanding of the grief process and more support for children and families struggling with the impact. She founded her charity, Kenzie’s Gift, to help meet that need.

A colleague of Glen’s had heard Nic speak about her experience, was impressed by her passion and message, and suggested he get in touch.

Nic offered to come to Dunedin with her 18-year old son Conor and conduct her workshop for Year 12 and 13 students. Adventures with Grief brings the subject of loss front and centre, provides strategies for coping, and gets young people talking. Such conversations break down barriers and stigmas around grief and smash that timeworn response, ‘Man up and get over it.’

Glen could see value in the workshop right away. “Events such as a death, a major change, or even a break up with a girlfriend, can pull the rug out from under these boys and really rock them.

“It’s a vulnerable time. Boys aged 16 to 18 are working through many changes, both physical and emotional. They’re trying to figure things out, make that transition from boys to young men, dependence to independence, and they rely on a foundation of normality, of things remaining the same.”

Adventures with Grief Workshop

Many students Glen sees are experiencing grief for the first time. He acknowledges the value of learning tools and skills to get them through.  “Emotions are amplified. A big deal becomes a huge deal, and a huge deal is colossal. First-time grief is raw, massive and challenges everything these boys know as ‘normal’ in their world. How do you overcome that and move on? Teenagers can get into dark places very easily. Having strategies to help them get out – or not get in at all – are so important.” 

Nic encouraged the students to participate in discussions and group exercises, to think and talk about grief. For some, grief was already a companion. For others, it was on the horizon.

Glen felt Nic’s presentation was helpful and relevant with clear messages. “There is a taboo around grief. It’s in our culture to not talk about it, to just get over it. Nic’s message was clear – this isn’t the right way. She provided strategies for coping at the time and in the future, gave the boys activities, had them getting up, writing and doing. She understands how young boys operate and how to connect with them. She had invested a lot of time and care in the planning and preparation of the workshop. It was geared towards engaging the boys and she was really on point. It was very impressive.” 

Nic’s insightful understanding of the age group comes from her son Conor, who was only five when Mackenzie died. The loss affected him deeply and he joined Nic at the Workshop to talk to the boys and share his experiences and thoughts.

“Conor enabled a good connection with the students. He’s a rugby lad and spoke with a sensitivity that resonated with some of the boys who cross their arms and say, ‘I don’t need this’.”  

It was the first time the school had held a workshop of this type. Some students were reluctant to attend, but Glen said a few of the boys ‘least likely’ stayed on afterwards to chat amongst themselves, or with Nic and Conor, and gave positive feedback about the workshop.

“There were so many take away messages for the boys. Top of the list is talk. Get it out in the open and don’t hide in a room on your own. Understand that there is no quick fire silver bullet, grief can’t be fixed right away, but there are coping strategies that can help get you through. Grieving is a process. The good news is, there are people who will listen and have the skills to help. Voice it. Bring it out. Lighten the load.”

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