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Documentary aimed to help teens cope with loss

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August 23, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — The end of a life often sparks the beginning of a long, traumatic period of grief and confusion for the survivors — particularly if those survivors are young and have few friends who understand their plight.

But students throughout Vermont will soon get a better understanding of the grieving and healing process that follows a loved one’s death, thanks to a new documentary film spearheaded by Hospice Volunteer Services (HVS) of Addison County.

The documentary, featuring footage of a support group discussion among teens who have recently lost a parent or other family member, will soon be distributed to every high school in the state.

David White, an HVS staff member, explained the seed for the documentary was planted a few years ago, when hospice volunteer Deb Cossart brought forth the idea of establishing support groups for teens who had recently lost loved ones. With help, HVS was able to establish teen support groups at Mount Abraham and Vergennes union high schools during the 2005-2006 academic years.

“There was then the discussion to film the kids,” White recalled. The idea was to enlist the help of Middlebury Community Cable Television to record, and broadcast, the teens’ discussion sessions as a way of making their peers more savvy about the grieving process.

“We started raising money for that effort, thinking that maybe $1,000 would be plenty, and we got a couple of local grants,” White said.

But HVS had to suspend the effort after some key volunteers either left or had to focus on other projects.

Still, White and HVS Executive Director Patty Dunn kept the documentary idea alive. They continued to raise funds, in hopes of someday hiring a filmmaker to put the plan into motion.

That day came earlier this year, when HVS officials struck up a deal with Chris McClure, an award-winning documentary filmmaker who just happens to be married Maura McClure, president of the HVS board of directors.

Hospice officials stepped up fund-raising to meet McClure’s fee. Six local, state and New England organizations including Neat Repeats, the United Way of Addison County and Addison Central Supervisory Union chipped in to help HVS meet its goal of $17,500.

With McClure now on board, HVS needed to find a teen support group to film. Unfortunately, the groups at Mt. Abe and VUHS were no longer operating. But as luck would have it, HVS officials met a some Montpelier-area students at the recent state hospice conference and they declared an interest in having their support group sessions filmed.

“We were very impressed with them,” White said of the teens, who include U-32 students Abby Suskin, Kylie Graves, Emily Shapiro, Meghan Rice and Amanda Rice. All had something in common — having recently lost a close relative to a terminal illness or tragic accident.

McClure filmed the students at one of their homes, meeting around a table.

“He was immediately impressed by their emotional maturity, by their ability to honestly articulate their experiences,” White said. “He could see that this would be of value … and came up with a stunning documentary.”

That documentary is divided into two “chapters.”

The first is a 28-minute-long piece designed to be used in high school health classes to stimulate discussion about loss — specifically what it’s like for a teenager to have a loved one die.

“How these girls interact with each other, we feel, is an inspiring thing for other teens to see,” White said. “The advantage of being able to not listen to a grown-up talk, but instead to see a fellow teenager, in their language, emoting and working through this natural reaction to loss that we call grief, we thought would be very powerful.”

While the film won’t be distributed until this fall, it has already had a powerful impact on groups of teens who have gotten a sneak preview.

“It’s a medium they can relate to,” White said. “To see their peers struggling with and processing strong emotions seems to be a catalyst for the kids to get into this topic.”

The second chapter of the film includes the observations and analysis from two professional facilitators who participated in the group session and whose comments were filmed later.

One of those facilitators is nationally known grief counselor and author Virginia Fry, a Vermont resident.

White believes the documentary will provide schools with a prime opportunity to incorporate information about grieving into their health classes. He said that while those classes rightfully emphasize human development and preventing unwanted pregnancies and communicable diseases, there could be some room for discussion of death and grieving.

HUGE POPULATION

He noted 90 percent of youths aged 18 in the United States have had someone they love die.

“That is a huge population,” White said. “If that group is not being spoken to in a transparent, honest way, we have an opportunity to meet that need.”

The Vermont Children’s Trust Foundation will help HVS give a copy of the DVD to every high school in Vermont. A booklet will accompany the film to guide teachers on how the material can be used to maximum benefit. White hopes to receive additional grant money so that he, or another hospice official, can be made available to schools to further guide them in using the film. White is also studying ways in which to provide the film to schools throughout New England and perhaps nationally, some day.

“There isn’t anything like it,” White said of the film.

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