Just because change is normal, doesn’t mean it’s easy

I began working at St Peter’s Campus, All Saints College, Maitland as a clerical assistant in 1994.  In 2008 I undertook a new direction and became a Pastoral Care Worker for the College, under the National Schools Chaplaincy Program.  One of my first challenges in this role came when I undertook training to be a Companion in the Seasons for Growth Program.

Seasons for Growth is for those who have experienced a significant change and loss in their lives and are dealing with grief.  It is based on the belief that “change, loss and grief are a normal and valuable part of life”.   However, just because it’s normal, doesn’t mean it’s easy. 

Before becoming a Companion, I needed to participate in a Seasons for Growth Adult Program and I understood the reasoning for this.  I had lost my little girl, Danielle, to cot death in 1985 when she was just three months old.  In my head, I knew that I needed to recognise and own my feelings and emotions about her death before journeying with our young people through their grief, so I went along very confident that I would be revisiting my little one’s death and the grief I went through.  Instead, what surfaced was totally unexpected.  Two years earlier, I had travelled to Sydney with my family to farewell our son as he left for England for two years.  It was an exciting adventure and one we wholeheartedly supported. After waving him off, we drove around to the domestic airport and said goodbye to our youngest boy who was flying to Queensland to study film at university.  Our eldest son was staying in Sydney as he had joined the NSW Fire Brigade.  I was upset driving home but I knew the boys were all doing wonderful things and in my head, I knew that this was right.  These boys were experiencing life in the best way.  However, two weeks later I became sick and I struggled, mentally, emotionally and health-wise, for some weeks.

Seasons for Growth brought me to the realisation that I had been grieving! The significant changes, although good for my boys, meant that my role as a mother had changed.  We experience change all through life. Life does not stand still, nor would we want it to, but change can bring loss and loss can cause grief. I learned that grief can be experienced in many different ways, including sickness.

The Seasons for Growth program is grounded in J William Worden’s grief theory and further developed around the imagery of nature’s seasons. There are so many wonderful elements to this program.  It provides a safe environment where you can share your story.  Listening to others’ stories gives you a sense that you are not alone; that there are effective ways of coping, new ways of thinking.  It helps you identify feelings and gives you a language to describe all of this. It looks at the big question:  how can we learn to live with these experiences and then how can we grow through them?

Seasons for Growth has adapted Worden’s tasks and, following a wonderfully illustrated, beautifully written handbook, we journey through the seasons.

We begin with Autumn.  We spend autumn getting to know each other, sharing what we know about the seasons and talking about the changes in nature and change in general in our lives.

Winter is a time when we sit with our stories.  We listen; we share; we learn about possible reactions to change and loss and how others experience these.

Spring is often referred to as a time of hope, so our task here is to develop skills to assist us in processing our grief.

And in Summer we look at ways we can move forward. 

This process is based around peer groups of six to eight students.  It runs for eight sessions, although my sessions may run longer depending on the needs of the young people.  It is tailored for different age groups, from infants pupils through to senior students.  There is also an adults’ program and a program for parents who are separated or divorced.

I work with high school students in stage 4 of the program.  Students are identified and referred to me but I also promote the program at school assemblies.  I find sending an invitation to all students, so that everyone is writing their name and ticking a box − ‘yes’ to attend a group or ‘no thank you’ − allows students to come forward themselves.  Sometimes we are unaware of the difficulties young people are facing.  Death, suicide, divorce and relocation are some of the causes for grief in our groups.  Being sole carer for an ill parent is another.

I have had many beautiful testimonials from young people telling me that Seasons is what got them through the year.

One student joined a group but didn’t share his story until we were well into Spring.  When he finally opened up, it was like a dam had burst! The other students just opened their hearts to him and the relief on his face was heart-breaking to see.

One group of Year 10 girls was very unhappy at school.  They were disconnected from the other students and were struggling in so many ways.  They were definitely not going to the Year 10 dinner dance.  However, after spending time together, listening to each other’s stories, talking about their struggles, they no longer felt disconnected.  They felt supported and more importantly they felt like they weren’t alone.  They all turned up at the dance and thoroughly enjoyed their special night together.

We finish our sessions with a Celebration and the promise of gathering again in a later reconnector.

Companioning young people through Seasons for Growth is an honour and a privilege.

Catherine O’Brien is the Pastoral Care Worker at All Saints College, St Peter’s Campus, Maitland, and St Joseph’s Campus, Lochinvar. Please visit mn.catholic.org.au/church-community/change-loss-grief.

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Catherine O'Brien Image
Catherine O'Brien

Catherine O'Brien is the Pastoral Care Worker at All Saints College, St Peter's Campus, Maitland and St Joseph's Campus, Lochinvar. 

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