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When the Young Grieve : A support group offered at schools and community centers helps bring teen-agers who have encountered tragedy.

March 11, 1994|MARYANN HAMMERS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Maryann Hammers writes regularly for The Times

Gema Mitchell, 16, of Van Nuys experienced more tragic losses last fall than many people face in a lifetime. In September her close friend was mur dered after a Bible study class. Her aunt's fiance was killed by a drunken driver in November. A few weeks later her teen-age cousin was shot to death.

With no outlet to release her grief and anger, Gema shut down. "I didn't care about any of my classes," she said. "My grade-point average fell from 3.5 to 1. I am a social person, but I stopped going out. I could barely think. I just dropped."

Concerned, Gema's mother searched for a program that would help her daughter. She learned about a support group at Kaiser Permanente medical center in Panorama City called Teen Age Grief--better known as TAG--offered at high schools and community centers throughout Los Angeles.

TAG was created in 1984 by grief counselor Linda Cunningham, director of bereavement services at Kaiser. She came up with the idea when two close friends, a married couple with three teen-age children, died of cancer within a few years of each other. Although support groups for widows, bereaved parents and other adults abounded, no groups for young people existed.

"Teens need to talk to other teen-agers who understand their issues," Cunningham said. "They are scared. They are angry. Adults have no idea what these kids carry around with them when they are grieving, and we expect them to concentrate on their science and math."

Anyone who reads the headlines realizes that today's teens are more likely than previous generations to know someone who died violently. According to FBI reports, children under 18 are 244% more likely to be killed by guns than they were in 1986. In 1992, more than one in five California homicide victims were 19 or younger.

"Many more teens have lost peers to violence than when TAG started," Cunningham said. "Many of these kids have lost more than one friend by their senior year. Some have lost four or five friends. A lot have witnessed the death--they have seen the drive-by or the murder."

Of course, not all TAG members lost a loved one to violence. They may be mourning a parent who succumbed to cancer or a heart attack; a fellow student may have been stricken by AIDS or hit by a car, or a friend may have committed suicide. But regardless of the cause of death, fellow TAG members understand each other in a way that no one else can, Gema said.

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"No matter how someone dies, they are gone," she said. "You feel like someone stole something from you. So everyone in the group has the same feeling of being violated. Other people forget anything happened to you and ask stupid questions like 'Why are you still crying?' or else they make stupid assumptions and they say, 'Why aren't you crying?' "

TAG members meet for six to eight weeks, and they may repeat the program as often as necessary. Teens are encouraged to bring photos, mementos or music that remind them of the deceased, and they stage a memorial service, complete with poems, flowers and posters in honor of their loved ones. The gatherings are anything but morbid, according to Cunningham.

"We don't sit and cry for an hour and a half," she said. "We don't talk about death, but the value of the life of this person. We give them ideas for expressing anger without hurting themselves, such as screaming into a pillow or writing a letter to the deceased. And we spend a lot of time identifying each other's strengths."

Modesty Cass, 16, who attends TAG meetings at Taft High School in Woodland Hills, said the group helped her resolve her anger over her father's death last year. A "tissue toss" session, in which she ripped every sheet out of a fresh box of tissues, was particularly beneficial.

"I sat in the middle of the room, and as I threw the tissues, I was throwing away my anger," she said. "Then other members of the group would pick up a tissue and give it back to me along with something positive--a kind word or helpful hint."

In the three weeks since Gema joined TAG, she already has noticed her attitude improving. "I am concentrating on my homework, and I am getting it together," she said.

Where and When LIAISON: GET MAC TOPPER: WHERE AND WHEN What: Teen Age Grief support groups. Location: Offered at many high schools in San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys. Also at Kaiser Permanente, Panorama City. Call: TAG headquarters, (805) 253-1932, Kaiser's bereavement services office, (818) 375-3528, or contact a high school counselor.

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