Helping Children Grieve: Amanda the Panda Volunteer Barbara Perkins

If one can love, one can grieve - no matter the age or circumstance. 
That's the mantra Barbara Perkins maintains as she works with children as a volunteer with EveryStep's Grief & Loss Services' Amanda the Panda program. 
Observing young children trying to make sense of their feelings was the impetus for Barbara to become involved with the program.
In fact, Barbara first found Amanda the Panda through her career as an elementary school counselor.
"I held Cheer Box drives with the staff and also obtained guidance on age-appropriate grief information for several of my students who were dealing with loss," she recalls, adding that she also helped arrange for students and their families to attend the Amanda the Panda Grief & Loss Camp that occurs twice a year.
Since then, Barbara has spent years as a volunteer facilitating small grief groups for children.
"Through various activities and play in the grief groups, which is the work of childhood, children find a safe place to gather with their peers who have also experienced loss," Barbara says of facilitating the groups. "The knowledge that there are other kids who have sadness makes the group experience one that they look forward to attending."
Barbara notes that through the small groups she believes children are able to find commonality in their losses.
"To see children greet one another almost as old friends, and begin to open up and ask one another about their own losses...It’s absolutely magical. And so humbling to play a small part in," she says.
Sitting with a child who is expressing feelings about the loss of a loved one is truly an honor and profound experience, Barbara says.
"They are courageous," she says. "Our job as adults is to support them, and little by little, encourage their expressions, and help them cultivate healthy ways of coping."
That's exactly what she hopes to facilitate in Amanda the Panda's grief groups for children.
"Some of the spontaneous comments that children make, even the youngest, can take one’s breath away," she notes. "There is a lot going on in their minds, and they need a safe space to be heard, validated."
But above all, they also need to just be children, she says.
They need "to know that even in their pain that it is ok to laugh, to be silly, to regress, to think about their birthdays and holidays, and to know that the death is not their fault," she says.
It's that balance and the "wonder, energy and resilience" of children that keeps Barbara coming back session after session to Amanda the Panda.
"I absolutely am crazy about kids," she says. "I knew in second grade that I wanted to be a teacher, as well as to be a mom. I want these kids to know that there are adults in the world that they can count on to come through for them."
By being there for children amid their loss, Barbara hopes to reiterate the concept of hope, letting those she works with know that even when things are uncertain, when there are tears and turmoil, that there are people who are there for them.
Recently, the idea of hope has come into play in a virtual sense. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, EveryStep made the decision to temporarily suspend in-person grief support groups and other events. Amanda the Panda recently moved its support group online, and Barbara made the move along with it.
"I've tested my technological skills lately as I've become involved with virtual groups," she says of facilitating adult grief groups for the program.
Barbara encourages others to volunteer for Amanda the Panda, even if facilitating a support group isn't for them.
"Amanda the Panda offers a variety of volunteer opportunities to make a difference in our own lives as adults," she says. "I love volunteering with Amanda the Panda. I feel appreciated and I know that I receive more gratification in my heart than I give."
Be part of a supportive community of people who understand what it means to grieve a loved one. Sign up for EveryStep Grief & Loss Services' July 23rd Living With Loss dinner, 6-7:30 p.m. Participants pick up meals from EveryStep Grief & Loss Services' West Des Moines office to enjoy from the comfort of home while a trained facilitator guides and connects up to 12 dinner guests through a meaningful online conversation via Microsoft Teams.