Imagine you’re once again a young adult (age 17 to 24), transitioning toward independence, grappling with the challenges of an exciting but often daunting phase of life, struggling at times with many new responsibilities and burdens.
And now imagine that you lose a loved one during that time.
Helping young people process that grief, at an age that can already be confusing and traumatic, is the goal of the Young Adult Bereavement Art Group, offered by UC Davis Hospice and UC Davis Children’s Hospital.
“Young adults experience grief differently than both children and older adults,” said program co-facilitator Katie Lorain, an art therapist in the Child Life and Creative Arts Therapy Department of UC Davis Children’s Hospital. “While the range of emotions they experience is similar to that of adults, their process is inherently different because they haven’t had the life experience – nor has their brain completely developed to give them the tools necessary to work through their grief.”
Since launching in February 2009, these art groups – which are offered twice a year for eight consecutive weeks – have benefited 129 young adults. During the program [PDF], they participate in a variety of activities, such as creating masks to explore their evolving identity, drawing maps to identify difficult emotions, and assembling memory boxes to remember their loved ones.
According to the other co-facilitator, Licensed Clinical Social Worker Susana Becerra, the program is a “one-of-a-kind group in our community.” Offered for free to any young person who registers, the program fills an essential niche between the therapy groups offered for adults and those for children/teens.
“It is important for young adults to have a space to grieve with peers who fully understand what loss is –at a point in their life when, typically, young adults don’t have loss,” Becerra explained. “Our group provides a space where each participant feels understood and not alone…the group participants end up establishing a support system amongst themselves at a time that often breeds isolation.”
With COVID-19, however, physical distancing precautions threatened to cut these young people off from their crucial support networks.
“From the very beginning of the pandemic, we knew that this group would be more important than ever to host,” Lorain said. “COVID-19 has affected grieving in many ways; funerals and celebrations of life have been delayed or cancelled and young adults are no longer attending school or social events in person which can lead to increased feelings of isolation – now, more than ever, it is important to make time for one’s mental health and to seek support from your peers in whatever way is possible and safe.”
That’s why the facilitators quickly pivoted to offering the art groups virtually, via Zoom. But that posed a logistical difficulty – ensuring that all participants had the supplies they need for the art activities.
Enter UC Davis Hospice’s dedicated volunteers like Angie Buell. A volunteer since 2017, Buell literally went the extra mile to ensure the program would keep rolling. She made a 50-mile circuit around the Sacramento area to participants’ homes, dropping off canvas bags stuffed with art supplies and group materials.
“When I got to the door and handed them their supplies, they always had a big thank you,” Buell said. “But when they continued to tell you that they loved everyone that was from UC Davis, you know you are a part of a strong, caring team.”
For her part, Buell said she is grateful to be a part of that team.
“Most people that choose to volunteer – myself included – want to make a difference in people’s lives,” she explained. “And the curious and great thing about sharing yourself and time is that you are the one that reaps benefits beyond what you thought would happen.”
Fundamentally, it’s that sharing of oneself – and of one’s feelings – that make the art group so valuable for the young adults.
“There have been participants who report they have not been able to cry or fully grieve with friends or family – and a few sessions in, they become tearful during group, which is a cathartic experience,” said Becerra. “Some have been able to return to taking classes or to work because their coping has improved and they feel supported, and others share thoughts and feelings they state they haven’t shared with anyone else – we feel honored to be able to be part of their healing journey.”
The spring Young Adult Bereavement Art Group is wrapping up this week. For information on the upcoming fall session – as well as other support groups for adults, children and other community members – please call 916-731-6867.