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Grief and Bereavement class children's books project

 Books by LSU students offer help for children

from The Advocate 8/12/2005

By ELLYN COUVILLION
Advocate staff writer

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING
Sherry Smelley, who teaches a class on grief and bereavement at LSU, shows some of the children's books on grief that her students have created. The books are available to the public at the library of Cancer Services of Greater Baton Rouge.
LSU students who take Sherry Smelley's "Grief and Bereavement" class do it for a number of reasons.

While the class isn't intended to be therapy, some students take it because they've suffered a loss in their lives, said Smelley, a clinical social worker.

Other students sign up for the class because "they're just curious about things. Sometimes they just need -- an elective that fits their schedule," she said, with a laugh.

But students who don't have a particularly strong reason for taking the course "are awakened when they come to class," Smelley said.

She's learned, she said, that "no one leaves the class without (experiencing) a profound impact."

"Grief and Bereavement" has given the students the chance to make a positive impact on the lives of others, as well, through a class project: books on grief, written for children.

Not long after Smelley began teaching the class four years ago, she began donating some of the students' books to the library of Cancer Services of Greater Baton Rouge.

The library is open to the public, according to Cancer Services, and books may be checked out for a month.

A number of the books there, including those handmade by LSU students, are designed to help children deal with loss.

"These are wonderful; they're simple, but they have great insight," Susan Moreland, program director with Cancer Services, said of the LSU students' work.

"I think it's a wonderful source for the library," said Stacey Harrison, Cancer Services resource center coordinator.

"Even though they're simple … there are insights adults could use," said Harrison.

With titles like "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow," "Goodbye Goldie" and "The River Never Stops," the 10 student-book donations talk about loss and grief in a calm, consoling way.

Students work in teams on the projects. The illustrations, some original and some computer-generated, are simple but effective.

Each book donated this year includes a section for the adult reading the book to the child that further explains the concepts in the book and offers ways to help a child deal with loss.

"Goodbye Goldie," for example, is a story about Johnny, a little boy who comes home from school one day to learn that his pet fish, Goldie, whom he considers "his best friend," has died.

"Johnny, life begins with birth and ends with death," the boy's mother tells him in the story. "Goldie's life ended today."

Johnny and his mom bury Goldie in a box, with the toy castle from the goldfish bowl, in the yard.

"Goldie was now in a special place, both in the yard and also in Johnny's heart," says the book.

The section in the book for the adult reader advises the reader to let the child know it's OK to be sad "when death confronts us. Crying is okay," and that adults should "answer children's questions truthfully and simply."

Smelley's class is offered regularly as a graduate-level elective and, on a rotating basis, as an undergraduate elective in the School of Social Work.

In the past, the children's books have been a project of the undergraduate class, but Smelley said they would also be a part of the graduate classes in the future.

Students in the "Grief and Bereavement" course learn, according to the course objectives, about the theories and attitudes on grief and bereavement in different cultures, use literature to explore personal views on grieving, and study ethical issues in different end-of-life situations.

They study movies and also plan a ceremony every semester to honor and remember people who have passed away.

"Death is something we try to separate from ourselves as best we can," said Smelley, who has a private counseling practice in Baton Rouge

But there's a benefit to giving it some thought.

"Socrates said that 'only when we examine death, do we appreciate life,'" said Smelley.

In their studies, the students learn about how children grieve and write their books accordingly.

Children can feel a lot of guilt about someone's death, said Smelley. Young children are at the age, she said, when they use "magical thinking. They think they have more power than they do."

"Daddy said I shouldn't make too much noise," a child might think, if their father dies.

They can think that maybe they caused the death.

Also, said Smelley, adults should be "very specific…be very careful. Children will incorporate" confused ideas.

Seemingly innocuous statements like "Grandpa's asleep" or that a loved one "isn't coming home from the hospital" can make a child afraid to go to sleep or overly afraid to go to the hospital for medical treatment.

This year, before passing the books along to Cancer Services, Smelley gave the books to several local oncology social workers to read.

She's also donated one of the student books, "Grandma, It's Me," to the local Alzheimer's association.

"People grieve at all of life's losses," said Smelley.

"There's only one way to avoid grief and that's to avoid love," she said.

And that, she said, isn't a good option.

The Cancer Services' library, 550 Lobdell Ave., is open during regular office hours, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. For more information on the organization's library and other services, call (225) 927-2273.