For kids who have lost loved ones to suicide, playing is as important as grieving. SEZ WILKS learns how volunteers at Serious Fun, a suicide bereavement program, support primary school children to do both.
When Helena stepped outside her corporate role at National Australia Bank (NAB) to volunteer with Jesuit Social Services’ Serious Fun holiday program, she never expected to be helping kids make goop. But making a mess is all part of how Serious Fun works.
Each school holidays, the program gives children who have lost parents or close family members to suicide the chance to get to know other kids in their situation, play together, and be serious together, too. In Australia, an average of 8.3 deaths occur by suicide each day, and about 76 per cent of those who die by suicide are male.
For a child who has lost their father, brother or other close relative to suicide, Serious Fun provides a space to grieve while still having fun.
And for volunteers like Helena, it can change ideas about the impact volunteering can have.
“It wasn’t at all what I was expecting. Sometimes when you head out to these volunteer days it can be difficult to see how what you are doing has an impact – you sort of feel that you are doing a task in isolation.
“With the Serious Fun program I felt my time, in some small way, made a difference to the lives of those children in that room. That’s something I will cherish for a long time.”
Colin Charles, Serious Fun co-facilitator, says volunteers are integral to the program.
“We’d like as many as we can get. Serious Fun volunteers help prepare food for the kids and get involved with the activities. It’s about being there with the kids, making a mess – and helping clean it up. And it’s a lot of fun!”
The program balances play with teaching kids to develop powerful resilience skills. Throughout the day, the program facilitators show kids how to communicate with others about the experience of bereavement. Colin, who is also a professional counsellor with Jesuit Social Services’ Support After Suicide program, says it’s vital that kids are given an opportunity to talk about their experience. He reflects that children may take in more about their situation than the adults around them realise, and talking with other kids in a similar situation can help.
“They might not have the vocabulary to talk about suicide, or they might not be able to talk to other people in their day-to-day life – their school friends, their parents and other family members. Serious Fun gives them the opportunity to talk, if they want to.”
For parents it’s a chance to know that their kids are having fun, in a supportive setting that helps them find the words to talk about their experience.
For volunteers like Helena, it’s an exchange that has lasting benefits for everyone involved.
“This program matters. I spoke with some of the mentors, most of whom had come up through the adult program themselves, and all were resolute in saying that without Colin and his incredible team they may not have made it.
“With Serious Fun you’re given a precious opportunity – interacting with the children, you’re forced to be in the moment. And while I felt heartbroken for them, I also felt so proud of how resilient they all were.”
The Serious Fun program runs in Richmond on a Wednesday each school holidays. If you’d like to volunteer with Serious Fun, or if you know a child of primary school age who’d like to be involved in the program, please contact Support After Suicide on (03) 9421 7640 or email email@example.com.