Aultman game wins over kids experiencing loss

By Cheryl Powell Beacon Journal medical writer
POSTED: 12:00 p.m. EDT, May 05, 2010

CANTON: Dealing with the death of a loved one is hardly child’s play. But a Northeast Ohio hospital is marketing a new board game designed to help children share their emotions in a nonthreatening way. Aultman Health Foundation’s Grief Services recently began selling its Doggone Grief game to counselors, schools, funeral homes, support groups, families and other customers nationwide. The colorful board game features photos of about 100 dogs submitted by Aultman employees. The pooches’ pictures represent four basic emotions that players are asked to discuss: sad, mad, scared and happy.

”The game just opens the door and helps them feel more comfortable,” said Brenda Brown, director of Aultman Grief Services. Compassion Books Inc., a national company based in North Carolina, is selling Doggone Grief on its Web site and through its catalog, which is distributed to about 40,000 to 50,000 people nationwide. The 20-year-old company sells books, CDs, videos and other resources to help people deal with death or other losses. Compassion Books Director Bruce Greene said the company opted to sell the board game because it’s ”really well thought out and appealing to kids.

” ”There have been various board games that have come out to use in schools and things like that, but most of them are pretty minimal,” he said. ”We didn’t really want to carry one until we saw this one. . . . It just had more substance than the others I had seen.” Brown came up with the idea for the game several years ago after trying unsuccessfully to find a game to use with children during grief support groups she leads in Canton-area schools. ”I knew that playing a game or something fun or interesting would grab their attention and get them to talk,” she said. ”I thought, ‘We’ll just make our own.’ ” After getting the go-ahead from her boss, Brown enlisted graphic artists in Aultman’s media department to help design the game board and cards. The Canton-based health system contracted with a Las Vegas company called Board Game Design to produce the game, which is manufactured in China. A $3,000 donation from Dr. William Wallace and his wife, Candy, helped fund some of the upfront cost for the project. Brown, a dog lover, decided to feature canines in the game as a fun way to get kids to open up about their feelings.

”There are times that dogs make you happier than nobody else can, because they love you unconditionally,” she said. As players move their dog-shaped game piece around the board, they land on spaces and pick up a corresponding sad, mad, scared or happy card. Each of the cards includes an employee’s pet depicting the emotion and a question for the player to answer. One of the sad cards, for example, states: ”Sadie has a blank look on her face like everything is just fine, even though it’s not. Do you have times you pretend that everything is just fine, too? Please share.

” On a recent morning, seven students in a weekly grief support group at Lehman Middle School in Canton shared a mixture of laughter and sadness while playing Doggone Grief. After drawing the emotion cards, the children talked openly about everything from how they deal with anger to the things they miss about their deceased loved one. ”The thing I miss the most is her saying ‘goodbye’ when I go to school,” said eighth-grader Cody Warehime, 14, whose mother died in October. ”It’s the little things you miss,” agreed seventh-grader Jessica Coram, 13, who had two relatives pass away.

Amy Harrison, a counseling intern at the school from Walsh University, said several of the children in the group refused to talk about their feelings until they started playing the game. ”It’s a tool that we can use to help the kids,” she said. ”I definitely saw them open up more when we started playing the game. They would answer questions during the game that they wouldn’t answer without playing the game.” Seventh-grader Amanda Stamper, 13, said the game helped her talk about her father, who died when she was 4.

”When I came in, I used to not talk about what happened, because it was too hard to talk,” she said. Brown said the game can be played with all ages, but it’s primarily marketed for children. Doggone Grief retails for $35 and is available in the Aultman Hospital gift shop,Some national distributors, including Compassion Books (http://www.compassionbooks.com/products/Doggone-Grief-Board-Game.html) also are starting to sell the game. So far, nearly 200 of the first 1,000 games produced have been sold nationwide and in Canada. Proceeds are used to support Aultman Grief Services, which offers support groups, school programs and other services to help people experiencing loss.


Cheryl Powell can be reached at 330-996-3902 or chpowell@thebeaconjournal.com.

 Mary Mitchell has written several books on the subject of etiquette, including “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Etiquette” and “Class Acts.” She is also the founder of executive training consultancy: The Mitchell Organization. The opinions expressed are her own.

In the old days, I had been known to point at dogs in the street and sputter callously, “That is why zoos exist. Animals should be behind bars.”

That was before ZsaZsa, our French bulldog, entered my life. When I told my cousin, Kate, that we were about to get a puppy, she effused, “The dog will make you a better person. You will love her.” Wiser words never were spoken. Indeed, that little pup taught me, among so many other things, how to play, how to be patient, and how to be in the moment. In short order, little ZZ created a family from my husband and me, and shared all the happy and not-so-happy moments with equal spirit, love, and loyalty.

Humbled, I have a new, zealous appreciation for the role our pets play in our lives and how — when we lose them — we can be as devastated as if we had lost a child. I’ve long preached how important condolences are, when someone loses a loved one. Clients often ask how best to do this, especially when they might not have known the deceased, who might have been a colleague’s spouse, parent, child. Sadly, much of the Western world is a death-denying culture. We typically are given three days to grieve the loss of a family member, and then we are supposed to return to our jobs, performing as effectively as ever. The idea seems to be to suck it up and move right along, almost as if a life-altering event had never occurred.

Fortunately for our humanity, we slowly are becoming more aware of the toll losing a loved one takes, and necessarily more empathetic in our dealings with the bereaved. It’s time to appreciate how devastating the loss of a pet can be, and the effect that loss can have on our outlook, our emotions, our performance. We need to reach out to those around us, just as we would were the loss a human one.

Reverend Betsy Salunek, a hospital chaplain and grief counselor, allows that “I was one of those people who laughed at people who lost animals and were desolate…until I had my own dog.” Now she realizes that “We go through the same stages of grief when we lose a pet, and humans often have the same unfinished business with pets as humans, feeling that ‘I could have done more… I was not prepared to lose my best friend.'”

Jaycee Barrett, an investment executive turned dog trainer who recently lost her beagle, Henry, said she wondered what would fill the gaps in her life when Henry died. “For many people, our relationship with animals helps define us, and, when co-workers recognize this importance, it creates a unique, respectful, and memorable connection.”

Ariana Andrade, a physician at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, admits that losing her dog Bella made focusing at work tough. “It was also very hard to come home at the end of the day and not find her there,” she said. “I avoided coming home until I knew my husband was already home, because I just could not bear being there by myself without Bella.”

Andrade cautioned the well-intentioned against suggesting a replacement as part of efforts to reach out. “People often asked me when I was getting another dog. That made me feel worse and wonder whether, if a human being had died instead of a dog, they would have asked me ‘when are you getting another son, or husband, or friend?.'” Barrett agrees with those sentiments, and adds that “When Henry died, personalized sentiments in handwritten letters, a plant to nurture in memory of the loss, a donation to a dog park, a shelter, or a particular pet illness gave me great comfort.”

Ron Hunter, yet another Wall Street executive turned dog trainer, recommends www.RainbowBridge as a means to express condolence, especially when we are well-intentioned yet clueless. “If you really can’t connect, it’s better to keep your mouth shut because you know you will say the wrong thing. Fortunately, there are more pet condolence cards available now, as a last resort.” Our pets enrich our lives, and, when they are taken from us, we suffer. Let us be mindful of this and reach out with compassion to those who have lost a beloved animal, giving them time and space for adequate grieving, while letting them know that we understand. (Editing by Paul Casciato)