“Never underestimate a child's ability to grieve”

Updated: Nov 23, 2018

I am going to write an article for a Danish teachers magazine about Emilio Parga but after seeing him in action with a bunch of kids, I think it’s in its place to write a short piece in English first.

The other morning, I sat on the floor in an elementary school in Reno, Nevada, with the guy on the picture. Emilio Parga is his name, and together with two other adults and 14 kids we filled the corner room from wall to wall.

Over the next 30 minutes the kids told stories about loss, divorce, death, adoption and abuse.

One boy, not older than nine, recently lost a close family member. Gun shot, the boy answered in a low voice when Emilio Parga asked him how it happened. Then the boy slowly explained.

“My mom told me that, when I was at sleep, he went to a grocery store where somebody shot him.”

Emilio Parga is the founder of the organization Solace Tree with a mission to help children and teens face their pain and express their grief. The motivation comes the unresolved grief in his own childhood, and with groups like the one this morning, his hope is that the kids will learn to cope with their feelings better than he was ever allowed to.

Over the last 14 years, his organization has been in contact with roughly 10.000 children in Washoe County in Reno, and  Emilio Parga has heard the most gruesome, depressing and heart breaking stories. The idea is to teach the kids to “feel comfortable being uncomfortable together”.

“And you can see how much they’re getting out of it. Because they find out, that they’re not alone.”

The organization is in 15 schools in Washoe County, where Reno is the big city, and the school this morning is far away from being the worst in the area, Emilio Parga explains.

Still, the kids shared some pretty tough stories over the course of a half an hour (the most important part of the group is that the personal stories don’t leave the room, so I will avoid too much detail).

A few kids have a parent in rehab or prison, some are adopted or hope to be adopted, a handful is primarily taken care of by their grandparents, one boy eagerly waits for the weekly call from his dad, and right before the end of the meeting one kid began talking about the violence in their home. On top of that comes all the dead grandparents the kids talked about.

When the group got together the first time earlier this year, the kids were silent for almost all 30 minutes. The next time one kid opened up, and now, five group meetings later, new kids are joining.

“I like this group because nobody laughs. It is not my friends, oh my god, so I am not afraid,” one kid said when Emilio Parga asked them what they like about the group.

Emilio Parga teaches university students in coping with grieving children, he is member of several associations targeting troubled kids and he can write consultant, author and expert in explaining death to children on his business card.

In the group this morning he guides the kids and tells them that it’s okay to feel sad, to cry, to laugh, and to share whatever comes to mind. A lot of adults fail to really listen and answer children’s questions with honesty, he says.

“Never underestimate a child’s ability to grieve.”

When a child tells you about a loss, don’t say you’re sorry and don’t ask the child “how does it make you feel?”, Emilio Parga explains. Say that it makes you sad and help the child create memories by asking about the name of the deceased, how the person died and what the person did for work.

“Kids will talk to you if they feel they have the space.”

As a little side note: I first met Emilio Parga when he gave a lecture for the Healthy Communities Coaliton in Dayton, NV. Another organization doing an impressive job supporting the locals and giving them all sorts of help. Their chief of communications Quest Lakes invited me, and it is actually thanks to her that I am able to stay here in Northern Nevada this March. Check out her amazing residential program here.

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