Rebeccah Glisson will never forget the day in 2010 when her dad and brother showed up at the San Diego preschool where she worked with the news that her sister was dead.
Glisson, then 17, said her goodbyes to her co-workers, picked up her things and walked out to the parking lot. Then she collapsed to her knees in grief.
“It was horrible,” she said. “Earth-shattering.”
It was also the experience that started Glisson down the path she walks today as a volunteer group facilitator for The Elizabeth Hospice Children’s Bereavement Centers in Escondido and Mission Valley.
“Grief is not something you outgrow,” she said. “There are days when I don’t have the energy to put my feet on the floor. What helps is that I have the skills to get me through those kinds of days. I want to use my story to help kids cope with their grief when they have days like that.”
Group facilitator Rebeccah Glisson, 25, talks with siblings Emily Roberts, 7, left, and Nathan Roberts, 10.
Group facilitator Rebeccah Glisson, 25, talks with siblings Emily Roberts, 7, left, and Nathan Roberts, 10, before a children’s grief support group at The Elizabeth Hospice Children’s Bereavement Center in Escondido last week. The children’s father died two years ago. (Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)
Over the past year, the 25-year-old San Diego State University psychology student has spent six hours a week helping facilitate peer-to-peer grief support groups for children ages 3 to 18.
She’s one of 45 volunteers who help run the evening group sessions, which serve more than 200 children countywide. But Melissa Lunardini, children’s bereavement manager for The Elizabeth Hospice, said Glisson is one of the best facilitators she’s seen in her 15 years in the business.
“Beccah is so genuine and authentic but still tied to her grief,” Lunardini said. “When you talk about gifts and instincts, she’s just universally good at reaching even the most nonverbal kids. They will always fold to her and let her in.”
Glisson said she hopes one day to open her own center for youths recovering from all forms of trauma, including the deaths of loved ones, abuse, gang violence and sex trafficking.
On Tuesday evening, Lunardini and Glisson toured visitors through the Children’s Bereavement Center in Escondido. There’s a room with low-to-the-ground couches for group talking sessions, an arts-and-crafts area, a game room, a music room filled with instruments and a fully decorated hospital room.
Lunardini said some children find great comfort role-playing their stories in the hospital room because for many that’s the last place they saw their loved one before they died.
There’s also a newly opened “volcano room,” filled with colorful thick foam cushions, a punching bag and padded walls decorated with a big embroidered erupting vocano.
“It’s the big energy room,” Lunardini explains. “Kids who aren’t as comfortable verbalizing, particularly boys, can deal with their rage, frustrations and anxiety in there without getting hurt.”
Group facilitator Rebeccah Glisson, left, plays in the volcano room with siblings Nathan Roberts, center, and Emily Roberts at The Elizabeth Hospice Children’s Bereavement Center.
Group facilitator Rebeccah Glisson, left, plays in the volcano room with siblings Nathan Roberts, center, and Emily Roberts at The Elizabeth Hospice Children’s Bereavement Center. (Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)
The center’s walls are lined with children’s art projects. There’s one wall of photos of lost loved ones and another wall featuring “Before/After” drawings showing how children’s lives were changed by death. One “Before” drawing shows a smiling stick figure mother holding her children’s hands. In the “After,” the mother is in a coffin and the children are weeping.
There’s also a wall of children’s stories titled “How I Found Out …” One explained how the child’s mother found her husband hanging from a computer cord in the closet of their home office. His suicide, the child wrote, didn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
Before a group session for grade school-age children on Tuesday, Glisson played with siblings Nathan Roberts, 10, and Emily Roberts, 7, of Rancho Bernardo. Their dad, Scott Roberts, died two years ago from a heart attack at the age of 49.
Teresa Roberts said her children handled their father’s death in different ways. Emily is an exuberant child who processes her grief through talking. But Nathan, who’s more introspective, wouldn’t talk about it all. A year after Scott’s death, Roberts brought the kids to the bereavement center in Escondido, where they’ve both made dramatic progress, particularly Nathan.
“They’re able to express themselves more now in words and pictures,” she said. “Talking about their dad isn’t just about his death anymore, it’s about love and memories.”
Glisson said she tries to “meet kids where they’re at” by reflecting their behavior at the meetings. If they arrive like Emily, full of energy and enthusiasm, Glisson does the same. If they’re angry and sit silently with their arms crossed in a corner, she’ll sit beside them “and we can just be angry together.”
“Beccah has the ‘get it’ factor,” Lunardini said. “She knows how to use her story to help kids tell their story and she’s really cool. Kids love her. They flock to her.”
One of the ‘Before/After’ drawings created during group grief therapy meetings at The Elizabeth Hospice Children’s Bereavement Center in Escondido.
One of the “Before/After” drawings created during group grief therapy meetings at The Elizabeth Hospice Children’s Bereavement Center in Escondido. (Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)
Glisson said she knew from an early age she wanted to work with kids, though initially thought it would be in the field of early childhood development.
After high school, she was working full-time at the preschool and mulling a move to Boca Raton, Fla., where she could live with her 29-year-old sister Chasity Glisson while she attended college. But then her sister died from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning.
A few years later, Glisson also lost her father, who had multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. Over the years, she said she has lost more than three dozens other family members and friends to age, illness, accidents and suicide.
“We all have our paths of hardship,” she said. “We don’t get to choose our cards. I feel l can use all of those experiences to help children have an opportunity to heal.”
The Elizabeth Hospice Children’s Bereavement Center opened four years ago and now serves more than 500 children through group sessions, school programs and a summer camp. The sessions are free, with all costs supported through donations and grants.
After undergoing an assessment, children are separated into age groups (3-6, 6-12, 10-13 and 13-18) and attend 90-minute evening meetings twice a month. These begin with a 30-minute group talking session followed by an hour of activities. Each group has 10 to 15 children, one paid staff member and six to seven facilitators. While the children are in private sessions, their parents and caregivers have their own support meetings.
Lunardini said the children learn coping tools from adults and use them to help each other through “heavy patches of grief.” Boys tell other boys in group that it’s OK to cry. And at her grandfather’s funeral, 7-year-old Emily Roberts gave her mourning uncle a notepad he could use to write down his feelings.
Children usually attend the program for two years, though some have stayed for less and some for longer. The program mirrors the school year, running September through May.
Glisson said her greatest reward is seeing how the children transform to help themselves and each other.
“Sometimes, I’ll meet my mirror when I see someone going through what I went through,” she said. “I end up crying my eyes out when I see the support that comes from their peers.”
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