Counseling center cares for people with ‘complicated grief’
By Rebecca Cohen,
Cindi Day cheered as the bus carrying 6-year-old Tai-Vaughn Moore home from camp pulled up. The sole guardian of her grandson, she hadn’t found it easy to surrender him even for the weekend.
But Tai-Vaughn had been acting up in school, and Day hoped the three-day camp for youths who had lost a close relative would help him. She greeted him with a huge grin, asking how he was.
“Fine,” Tai-Vaughn said. “Do not talk to me.”
In the car, she offered him a hot pocket. “I don’t want anything from you,” he said.
Moore sometimes clashed with his teachers, but he had never disrespected his grandma before. After four or five days of his sullen silence, Day called the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing, which had run the camp, to find out what was going on.
Stephanie Handel, a child therapist, told Day to bring Tai-Vaughn in. Handel could see that the camp had opened him up to his feelings — and now he needed help dealing with them.
The Wendt Center is the resource you hope you never have to use. It stations therapists at the District’s morgue to help families who must identify a body. It leads workshops after school shootings to prevent retaliation. Following 9/11, the 2001 anthrax scare and the 2002 D.C. sniper attacks, its crisis management teams counseled victims and first responders.
About 7,000 people a year rely on the Wendt Center’s services, including 1,000 who, like Day and Tai-Vaughn, seek out individual, family or group therapy at the center’s offices in Northwest and Southeast Washington.
The word “cure” rarely passes the lips of therapists there. There’s no easy fix for clients such as Tai-Vaughn, whose father was charged with killing Tai-Vaughn’s mother when the boy was only 5.
Instead, there is only “your new normal,” which is what Day said Handel told her when she brought Tai-Vaughn in. That new normal is what their lives have been ever since.
A heavy load to carry
Tai-Vaughn’s world shattered on Nov. 9, 2002.
Day was at a conference in Ocean City, but her daughter, 23-year-old Danielle Hurley, kept calling. Hurley and her boyfriend, Tai-Vaughn’s father, were fighting over who should buy the boy’s winter clothes.
When Hurley drove up to the boyfriend to pick up money from him, he allegedly pulled out a gun and shot her through the jugular. Tai-Vaughn sat in the passenger seat, watching.
Police charged the boyfriend with murder, but his lawyer painted Tai-Vaughn as an unreliable witness, suggesting he was too young to tell truth from lies. No one else had seen Hurley’s death. The boyfriend was acquitted.
There was no question that Day would take in Tai-Vaughn. But her job as a conference planner required overtime and travel, and her supervisors noticed that her attention was divided. She was laid off five months after her daughter’s death.
Day found a new job as a construction project secretary. Other challenges were harder to resolve. Tai-Vaughn wasn’t old enough to process what had happened to his mom, and he still loved his father and saw him almost every day. Day struggled with an appropriate response to her grandson’s emotions.
“I didn’t want to teach Tai-Vaughn hatred,” Day said. “I think that’s a very heavy load to carry. But I wanted him to be angry.”
She also wanted to protect him. He was all she had left of her daughter, so she coddled him, not letting him do anything for himself. She bathed him, brushed his teeth and put on his clothes in the morning.
When Tai-Vaughn began landing three-day suspensions for hiding under tables in his kindergarten class, Day sought counseling for him without much success.
Then Day saw an article about Camp Forget-Me-Not/Camp Erin DC. Fifty-some children ages 6 to 16, all of whom had lost a relative, joined Wendt Center staff and volunteers for a weekend of activities to help them express their feelings. They would swim, canoe, paint, drum and launch boats in honor of their family members. The whole thing was free. It sounded perfect.
Tai-Vaughn, now 16 years old, remembers the camp as a peaceful place. He still has the miniature boat he made and launched in honor of his mother, its paint faded and its sail stained yellow.
But after a weekend of constant support, returning to everyday life seemed to overwhelm him. When Day called Handel to ask what the Wendt Center had done to her grandson, she was worried.
“At that point, I just knew that I entrusted my boy to them, and they gave me back a different kid,” Day said.
On the phone with Day, Handel’s composure never faltered. She ended the call with the sign-off that Day would hear again and again over the next eight years: “Take gentle care, my friend.” As mad as Day wanted to be, the word “friend” stopped her.
Making the pain visible
Handel began working in June 2000 as a child specialist with Recover, the Wendt Center’s program at the morgue.
Her duties have expanded to include counseling clients at the center’s main office in Van Ness. A construction-paper butterfly decorates the heavy wood door of one of the office’s therapy rooms. Inside, the therapist cradled a tan fox puppet. A Band-Aid clung to its matted fur.
“When you have a hurt inside, people don’t see,” Handel said. “The Band-Aids give [kids] a way to talk about the pain.”
Play comes naturally to kids, Handel said. Discussing grief doesn’t. Though the therapy room’s furnishings include the standard-issue therapist’s couch, she’s more likely to start a session by throwing a ball back and forth with the child than by asking him or her to lie down.
The puppets, dolls and sports equipment that Handel uses wouldn’t have had a place in the Wendt Center decades ago. When the Rev. William Wendt founded what was then called the St. Francis Burial and Counseling Society in 1975, his goal was to offer a cheap alternative to the funeral industry’s high prices.
Wendt became convinced that his Episcopal church did not deal well with mortality. In 1977, his organization began providing grief counseling. With AIDS emerging and the District’s murder rate soaring, the center had no shortage of clients. (Wendt died in 2001.)
In 2005, the center joined the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, a group of trauma-treatment organizations established by Congress in 2000. And just last year, the center began operating mental health groups in public schools in the District through a grant from the Justice Department.
Ricarda Dowling, the center’s communications director, called children the “invisible victims” of grief. They often struggle to articulate their feelings, and their parents may struggle to provide support while processing their own loss.
“They’re less equipped to deal with death,” she said.
No single model
Day said it took her years to understand that she and Tai-Vaughn were grieving differently. That epiphany came one day when Handel visited their house. The therapist asked Day and Tai-Vaughn to write their negative feelings on strips of construction paper.
One of Tai-Vaughn’s strips read, “I don’t like that Nanny won’t let me breathe.” When Day heard that, she realized what she had intended as empathy felt smothering to her grandson.
“I loved him so much that I wanted to be understanding,” Day said. “This was the first time I could say, ‘I get it.’ ”
Day tried harder to give Tai-Vaughn age-appropriate freedoms and responsibilities. She began assigning him chores such as sweeping the floor.
Handel used other tools to empower Tai-Vaughn. Every time he came to her office, she had him hurl lumps of clay at her wall.
“It made me feel like I was strong, throwing the clay at the wall and making a big sound,” he said.
With each lump he tossed, Tai-Vaughn had to tell Handel what he was thinking.
Despite Tai-Vaughn’s gains, Day said, her extended family did not see the point of grief therapy and expressed a common sentiment: “What the hell is she doing?”
“We are proud people,” she said. “When the funeral is over, we brush off our knees and go on.”
For decades, much of the literature on bereavement was not based on science, said George Bonanno, a clinical psychology professor at Columbia University. Around the 1980s, researchers finally began studying grief rigorously.
The results? Eighty-five percent of people who had suffered a loss recovered just as well without therapy as with it.
“Grief treatment, it turned out, did not work,” Bonanno said.
Not for “normal” grief, anyway. The other 15 percent of study participants shared a set of distinctive symptoms, including especially painful, persistent longing for the dead person. For people with this “complicated grief,” therapy was effective, Bonanno said.
Wendt Center therapist Beverly Jones said she’ll suggest that clients stop coming when it becomes clear that they don’t really need more treatment. She recently told a woman whose child had been killed that she didn’t need further help.
“I just said, ‘It’s time to go,’ ” Jones said. “ ‘You’re strong now. You’re stronger than when you walked in the door.’ ”
The door is open
For Day, there is no doubt that grief treatment is effective. “We would not be here without the Wendt Center,” she said. “No way.”
Day and Tai-Vaughn stopped their regular visits to the Wendt Center about a year ago, after about seven years. Tai-Vaughn had decided he was too macho for therapy, Day recalled.
In his grandma’s Temple Hills apartment, where photos of baby Tai-Vaughn and his mother line the walls, he recently tore himself away from a cellphone game long enough to offer his own explanation. “I guess I was getting better,” he said.
Tai-Vaughn is now in his sophomore year of high school and doing well. In his spare time, he takes pictures — he wants to be a photographer — and goes to movies and sports games with his grandma. Living with her is “the best thing in the world,” Tai-Vaughn said.
If Day and Tai-Vaughn ever do need help again from the Wendt Center, they know the door is open. Last winter, for instance, Tai-Vaughn planned to read a poem about his mother in a theater event that showcased the work of Washington area youths. A week before the performance, though he changed his mind.
Day was taken aback. She reminded him that he had made a commitment. But when Tai-Vaughn started crying, she arranged a conference with the show’s producer and Perry King, a Wendt Center therapist.
King suggested that they keep Tai-Vaughn’s poem in the show but find another actor to read it.
“You could see the transformation across Tai-Vaughn,” Day said. “Somebody gets it.”
Following that incident, Day called Handel, who told her to bring Tai-Vaughn in for a checkup. After meeting with him, Handel decided he didn’t need regular sessions. But, she told him, “you know that I am here.”
Day is still figuring out how to give Tai-Vaughn space, she said. Developments such as the stripe of green dye he recently added to his hi-top fade make her uneasy. But she’s coming to terms with his independence.
“Ten years ago, I would not have dared let him have his own individualism,” Day said. “If that’s the least of my worries, what color streak he has in his hair, I’ve got it good.”