As a licensed clinical social worker, Laraine Gordon knows it’s not always easy for teenagers to share their innermost feelings — particularly when they are connected to the death of a loved one.
She also understands first hand what it’s like to deal with death at a young age. When she was 12 years old, Gordon lost her sister and she recalls the rough years that followed.
“I remember it all too well,” says Gordon. “I had a difficult time. My family didn’t talk about it and I really struggled in my teenage years.”
Which is why Gordon has founded Time for Teens, a non-profit organization designed help adolescents work through their grief after the death of someone close to them. While East End Hospice offers its Camp Good Grief every summer for younger children, Gordon has found that teens have very specific needs when it comes to working through the effects of a loss.
“Sometimes you don’t see those repercussions until three or four years later, which is when the kids come to us,” she adds.
For the last two summers, Time for Teens has offered a four day bereavement retreat, most recently at Timothy Hill Ranch in Riverhead. Here, teens from 12 to 17 take part in activities typical of a camp — horseback riding, kayaking and even a slip and slide. But at Time for Teens, there’s another element, one which brings campers together in their shared grief.
“For teens, I felt it was a good idea to do activities geared toward what’s interesting for them,” explains Gordon, who limits the retreat to just 15 kids. “The more intimate a setting the more trust you can build.”
“When you have a loss in your immediate family, everyone goes into their own mode of grieving and there’s no way to talk about this anywhere else,” adds Gordon. “This is a safe environment. We offer so much trust and they offer so much courage.”
Gordon explains that she uses psychodrama, a creative therapy technique involving role playing, to reach teens. After writing a letter to the person who has died, teens are invited to read it to others or, if they choose, invite someone to play the role of the deceased person.
“You give them choices and they give us everything,” says Gordon. “We go where they’re ready to go. If they don’t want to do that work, we’ll gear it in another direction. When they have suffered a loss like this, these kids need to have a sense they have a say in something.”
Gordon explains that the therapy also allows teens to approach their grief from another’s perspective. When they see someone acting out similar experiences, it can trigger a sense of recognition. For some, the best therapy is to just take it all in.
“Kids are always participating on some level even if they look like they’re not,” explains Gordon. “Kids who are quiet get as much as those who share.”
While Gordon makes no demands on the teens when it comes to participating in activities, the one expectation she does have is that they will bond with one another during the course of the camp.
“The one hope we have during the week is that they make a connection with the other kids, which they’re not getting in the outside world,” says Gordon.
One camper who took part in the program this past summer was Theo Gray, son of North Haven’s Kathie Russo. Theo was not quite seven years old when his father, monologuist Spalding Gray, took his life in 2004. Russo notes that in the years since, although her son has talked openly about his father, he had been unable to cry for him.
“He’s pretty open,” says Russo. “I would ask how come you haven’t cried? He said, ‘I don’t know. I just can’t.’”
At Time for Teens, Theo found kindred spirits in the form of other East End kids who are suffering from losses of their own.
“The first day he came home and said, ‘Oh my God. We thought it was bad that Dad died, but there are so many worse stories out there,’” recalls Russo. “On the second day, it was like this big cloud was lifted and he said ‘I felt I could cry for Dad.’ He never felt that before.”
Russo notes that it’s hard to force kids into therapy — but something about Time for Teens showed Theo how to approach his grief from a new angle.
“It’s being in the environment where the kids tell their story,” notes Russo. “He said it was the best camp he’s been to in his life — better than baseball camp.”
On Saturday, December 6, Russo will host a cocktail party to benefit Time for Teens at her North Haven home. Throwing a holiday party is an annual tradition for Russo. But this year, she decided to use that gathering to benefit a good cause.
“I feel in these economic times, why should I have an extravagant party and put that energy, time and money into it when I can really help an organization,” says Russo. “We all have to think about alternative ways to help each other. It’s really bad out there. I don’t want to hear about extravagant vacations from friends, but how they gave back to the community. So you cut down on entertaining and put your focus into other things.”
The Holiday Fundraiser to benefit Time for Teens will be held at the North Haven home of Kathie Russo on Saturday, December 6 at 7p.m. Tickets are $150 and $250 (the $250 amount will sponsor a child for camp in 2009). Nick & Toni’s will cater the event. To reserve, call Laraine Gordon at 338-7258.
Above: Jackie Capichana and Theo Gray play on a hammock at Time for Teens