And a Little Child Shall Lead Them

updated 10/24/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/24/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

GRIEF IS A TERRITORY THAT WE WISH WE could mark "Adults only." But children gain admission every day, brought there by the death of someone close. Jenny Richardson of Portland, Oreg., was one. On New Year's Eve, 1983, her father, a railway engineer, was killed when his train plunged off the end of a drawbridge that had been opened by mistake. Early the next morning Jenny found her mother in tears. Though she didn't know it at the time, the 6-year-old was about to discover that she had a rare gift.

In overcoming her painful loss, Jenny developed an exceptional talent for guiding others through the same harrowing journey, and at age 9 she became the nation's youngest counselor to grieving children. "She's an amazing teacher," says Steve Sunderland, professor of social work at the University of Cincinnati, who met Jenny at a conference on death two years ago in Portland. "I was struck by her electricity. It was magical."

Jenny learned to come to terms with death at the Dougy Center, a nonprofit support organization for bereaved children, founded in 1983 and named after a boy who died of brain cancer. Jenny and her younger brother, Patrick, then 4. came to the center when they first heard about it—nine months after their father's death. "If I could have anything," says Jenny, "I would want Dad back. But his death taught me a lot."

One lesson was how to deal with fear. Sometimes Jenny could not fall asleep, terrorized that her mother, too, would be gone when she awoke. Only by learning to live with her grief—and by expressing herself—was she able to cope. And she came to understand her father's legacy of "strongness and power and love.' "

She would need those and more. On the first anniversary of her husband's death, Jenny's mother, Laurie, suffered an emotional relapse. A year of deep depression followed, during which it was left to Jenny to keep the family functioning. "She sort of swooped in and became the mother," says Laurie, 41, who also counsels at the center. "She'd lie in bed with me, stroke my face and say, 'It's going to be okay.' "

By 1986, Jenny felt she was ready to leave her support group and immediately made a bid to become, in the jargon of her new specialty, a volunteer "grief facilitator." But there was a problem: The center's rules didn't allow children under 14 to train for that sensitive position. Program Director Izetta Smith recalls Jenny's pitch. "She sat in this big chair, and like an adult she said, 'I believe I can help these kids.' So we invented something just for Jenny. We called her a resource person. I didn't know what that was going to be."

Jenny did. A few weeks later she began work with a 2½-year-old girl whose mother and twin sister had been killed in a car accident that the little girl had survived. Though many psychologists are skeptical about whether very young children can comprehend personal tragedy, Jenny is not: "I think even babies who lose someone still know. Maybe you don't remember, but you know that something's missing."

The pair met once a week, first under adult supervision, but later on their own. Jenny was able to get the child to express her feelings, sometimes using a toy telephone to urge the girl to call her mother in heaven. "Jenny worked with her a year, and this little girl really blossomed," says Smith. "I never would have known all of that was possible."

Two years ago Jenny formed a bereavement group for students at her middle school. "You can talk about anything with Jenny," says group member Phillip Batley, 13, who lost his mother to leukemia last year. "When you're thinking that no one else knows how you feel, she's the right person to go to," he says.

On the last day that the group met, before summer vacation, the kids released helium balloons, each carrying a note to a loved one who had died. The occasion also marked a release for Jenny, who started high school this fall and who has now turned her attention to helping elderly people in a local nursing home—and studying tap and jazz dancing. "I'm into everything," she says. "Not just grief and loss." But she'll remain the proof of two of grief's most perplexing truths. The first is that the smallest hearts can be asked to bear the heaviest pain. The second is that sometimes they can triumph.

—R.L.; SUSAN HAUSER in Portland

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