Supporting Families Facing Adversity

Maria Trozzi, M.Ed. is assistant professor emeritus of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine and the executive director of a new South Shore nonprofit called Joanna’s Place. We spoke to Trozzi about her extensive work in crisis counseling and how Joanna’s Place is helping to promote resilience in children facing some of life’s most stressful events and teaching parents how to talk to their kids about loss.

By Maria Allen

What led you to specialize in resilience/bereavement/grief counseling?

maria-trozzi-qa-2016Prior to my graduate training to become a psychotherapist, I taught math in a junior high school. I volunteered with Dr. Sandra Fox at Judge Baker Children’s Center, Boston, and she inspired me to combine my counseling/psychology and teaching skillsets to develop and implement a curriculum for educators; specifically, training teachers to become a base of support when their students faced a loss; incarceration of a parent, death of a classmate or teacher, or a community tragedy. I discovered that offering teachers the tools and developmental insight to talk to children facing a stressful life event, not as a therapist but as a caring adult, was powerfully effective both for the students and their teacher. Teachers had increased capacity to gently guide their students through the difficult terrain of painful or new feelings, and face their vulnerability in a group setting. More importantly, I discovered that in the crisis of loss lay a unique opportunity for children to develop and master coping skills—coping skills that would serve them as they faced the inevitable losses of growing up. Sadly, Dr. Fox died prematurely; however, I was inspired to continue her work by bringing the Good Grief Program to Boston Medical Center. Shortly after joining the faculty at Boston University School of Medicine, T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., invited me to lecture nationally with him and his team. I expanded my learning and clinical experience as I learned from him and lectured to pediatric audiences about children, resilience and stressful life events.

Describe your work with the Good Grief Program.

For nearly three decades, my work has taken me to every major city and many rural areas throughout the United States. Together with my colleagues, we have offered preventive training, support and protocols to educators and community partners, with our goal to help children facing a stressful life develop resilience.

We have established comprehensive, curriculum-based bereavement support programs, at no cost, for nearly 25 years within Boston neighborhoods and its suburbs after 9/11 for families impacted in the Boston area. My interest in loss and resilience expanded to consider the grief that occurs when a family member is disabled, chronically ill, or when a child has significant special needs. I have been privileged to work with the State Department, preparing families from our Navy SEAL community to face the challenges of pre- and post-deployment and creating and implementing programs that support Gold Star families.

You have served as a resilience consultant following several national tragedies. What was your role?

In the aftermath of several national tragedies; e.g. Columbine, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Haiti, the Boston Marathon bombing, Newtown, I provided hands-on training, guidance and support to adult professionals within their communities. I supported and trained doctors, clergy, teachers, parents, funeral directors and parents. Gathering together groups of first responders or teachers, or other helping professionals, I knew that they would benefit from each other’s experience, stories, challenges. Armed with new language, strategies and expectations, they were better prepared to continue to support families, children, patients, students, both immediately and long after I returned home.

What inspired the creation of Joanna’s Place?

Joanna’s Place was founded in loving memory of Joanna Mullin, a Weymouth resident who was murdered in August, 2007, at 6 years old. After Joanna’s death, I provided grief counseling to her parents, Heather and Jerry. Her younger brothers participated in our year-long CIRCLE grief support program; I provided training and support to her local school community as they struggled to know how to face this unmentionable tragedy. When a child dies, parents don’t “get over it.” I often tell bereaved parents that the grief of losing a child is like living with a boulder in your shoe. With grief counseling, support and time, the boulder may feel more like a rock, a stone or even a pebble. Parents learn to ‘accommodate the limp’ as they find meaning in their suffering and reclaim their lives and future. After two years of counseling, Joanna’s parents, Jerry and Heather, did just that. With my encouragement and direction, they founded Joanna’s Place. They have transformed their tragedy into strength and support for others. For me, agreeing to provide direction and guidance to this new non-profit organization just felt right. In the ‘third chapter’ of my career, Joanna’s Place feels like ‘coming home.’ I grew up and raised my daughters on the South Shore and am proud to create a program to support local South Shore families at risk.

What is the mission of Joanna’s Place and who does it serve?

We opened our virtual and real doors of Joanna’s Place in Hingham two years ago. Our young non-profit organization continues the mission that is at the heart of my work. We are dedicated to promoting resilience in children who are facing some of life’s most stressful events. We provide the tools, the support and the resources to heal, to grow and to strengthen families. Our current programming includes two distinct, comprehensive support groups; Circle-G, for children who have lost a parent or a sibling; Circle-T for children whose brother or sister has a significant special need.

In the spring we will roll out Circle-I, for children whose parent has a life-challenging or chronic illness. Our groups provide bi-weekly opportunities for kids to meet others just like them; eat pizza, have fun as they engage in activities that enhance their coping skills, while the caregiver learns strategies that strengthen their own parenting during a difficult time. Our Circles are not “drop in” but have continuity in order to provide children a predictable space and time to express feelings, learn coping skills, support each other and have fun—all at no cost to families.

Explain how your Talking Points program helps parents?qabookcover_4150

Shortly after my book was published, I was surprised that parents I had never met would, on occasion, call me to seek advice about a particular stressful event that their child was facing; such as, ‘How do we tell our children we need to put Rover to sleep?’ Or, ‘Nana has dementia and the children don’t understand. What should I say and do?’ After several of these calls that were time-sensitive, I concluded that parents need words and strategies to help their children face life’s speed bumps—not counseling, but concrete how-to information based on their child’s age and stage. That inspired me to create Talking Points: a one-hour consultation, sometimes by phone, with the parent/guardian. Parents worry about how to talk about separation or divorce, moving, losing a job, blending families, facing rejection from the hoped-for college, a diagnosis of a loved one, a miscarriage. Talking Points starts the dialogue. And it’s at no cost to families.

What is the most common misconception that parents have when it comes to talking to their kids about difficult topics?

Of course, parents want to protect their children from pain. It’s counter-intuitive to talk about a difficult situation. However, we must remember that children will digest information with us or without us. It is better to do it when we are prepared.

Why is it important that a parent’s response be developmentally appropriate for the child?

Helping a child cope with adversity starts with helping him/her understand. The lens with which a child understands fundamentally depends on her capacity to understand, typically determined by their age and stage of development. For example, in a family of three children, ages 3 years, 9 years and 14 years, learning about their parents’ decision to divorce has a different meaning for each of them and creates different concerns, worries and challenges.

How does a parent know if a child requires further counseling/help dealing with a life event?

Of course, parents know their children best. It’s normal for children going through a stressful life event to regress, to act out, to express a range of feelings. I suggest that parents particularly pay attention to the duration and intensity of these symptoms as well as the child’s aggression, moodiness, changes in social behavior. When in doubt, it is better to seek help from their pediatrician, school counselor or another reliable professional.

How has the South Shore community come together in support of Joanna’s Place and the Mullin family?

Immediately following Joanna’s death, the Weymouth community passionately embraced the Mullin family. A grassroots fundraiser, the Joanna Mullin Motorcycle Run, was initiated and had its seventh successful annual run (more than 700 motorcyclists!). Thanks to an energized volunteer team and generous South Shore friends, our first fundraiser gala was a smashing success. This fall, we hope the South Shore community will attend our Sparking Hope gala on November 4 and enjoy an evening of entertainment, live and silent auction, cocktails and dinner at Granite Links Golf Club in Quincy.

For more information about the services provided by Joanna’s Place or to purchase tickets for the Sparking Hope gala, click here.

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