Alumna Leads Space for Children to Grieve
One in 18 children in the US experiences the death of a parent or sibling. “One in 18 means one in every classroom,” says Liz Cohen (SPH’02), “or two on every school bus.”
In January, Cohen was appointed executive director of the Children’s Room. Based in a yellow, three-story house in Arlington, Massachusetts, the Children’s Room creates a space for children and their families to find support after the death of a parent or sibling. The core is the peer support program, where children and teens are divided by age group, and two parent groups serve those who lost a partner and those who lost a child. The core mission of the Children’s Room, according to Cohen? “No one should grieve alone.”
“We spend a lot of time remembering and talking about the parent or sibling,” Cohen says. “There isn’t a linear process for grief. It’s really about how to integrate the person into your life in different ways. You still have a relationship with the person who died; it’s just different.”
The Children’s Room’s services also include the use of expressive arts, activities and outings for teens, community groups in schools and afterschool programs, and training and education for professionals.
Children and families usually come to the Children’s Room for one to two years, Cohen says. “I feel like the house is this sacred space where people can talk about the person they loved who died, and we hold these stories,” she says. “I feel like they’re all over the house. In every room there’s children’s art, and there are the names of people who died. It feels like a lot of responsibility, and it feels like a different sense of responsibility than I’ve had in other jobs.”
But Cohen also says finding ways to talk about difficult topics has been the common thread throughout her career. She worked in the rape crisis field for 12 years, serving as the executive director of Rape Crisis Services of Greater Lowell, now the Center for Hope and Healing, right after graduating from the School of Public Health. She then went on to design and manage training and education technical support at Planned Parenthood. “Sexual health, sexuality, abortion, birth control, STIs—this is, in general, not cocktail party conversation,” she says.
Next, Cohen became executive director of Families First Parenting Programs, which helps parents in low-income communities navigate raising healthy, successful children. Before joining the Children’s Room, Cohen was a senior development officer at Jewish Family & Children’s Services.
In all of these roles, Cohen says her public health education has been vital. At SPH, she says she learned “how to create programs while listening to what a community needs, and what kind of change the community wants.” Cohen’s public health perspective makes her particularly interested in identifying and measuring outcomes, she says, especially where measurement is most difficult. “At Families First, I was trying to figure out how to measure the impact of parenting,” she says. “It’s very hard.”
Likewise, Cohen says the work of the Children’s Room is difficult to quantify, as is the need. “There’s very little research into what happens as a result of having peer support, of reducing isolation for children and teens who are going through the grieving process,” she says. While Cohen can cite the national estimate that 1 in 18 children has lost a parent or sibling, she says there is little information about the rate in Massachusetts, or about which communities need support and aren’t getting it. To find out, she is now looking for a practicum student from SPH to start to tackle those questions.
Understanding the need for this kind of peer support is vital because there are not enough bereavement centers, Cohen says: “I would argue there’s nothing like The Children’s Room.”