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Handling Grief and Loss: Allissa Johnson, Amanda the Panda Volunteer

posted on Thursday, September 13, 2018

ajAllissa Johnson used to be terrified of death. Now she leads discussions on that taboo topic with groups of kids who have just experienced significant losses.

Johnson discovered HCI Care Services & Visiting Nurse Services of Iowa’s Amanda the Panda program almost by accident. In 2010, she attended a 5K where she met then-Amanda the Panda executive director Charlie Kiesling, who spoke to Johnson about the impact the organization had on her. Struck by Kiesling’s passion and positivity, Johnson decided to check out the organization in more depth.

“I immediately was like ‘I’ve got to be a part of this’ I don’t know why, I just immediately thought that,” Johnson said.

There was no significant loss or death related epiphany that brought Johnson face-to-face with Amanda the Panda. But there have been endless “aha” moments since she’s started volunteering with  the program. 

During her first Camp Amanda the Panda visit, Johnson served as the unofficial-official photographer.

“I was completely overwhelmed with emotions… you would see kids that had lost parents, you would see teens that had lost brothers and sisters and even now I get goosebumps thinking about it,” Johnson said.

If you’ve never experienced crying while trying to take pictures, Johnson can assure you that it’s not pretty. But Amanda the Panda is not about shying away from the ugly, difficult things in life; it’s about learning how to cope with them.

As much as death terrified Johnson, talking to middle schoolers about death frightened her even more. So, when she was assigned a group of middle schoolers for her first camp as a counselor, she didn’t know what to expect. Here’s what she got: thoughtful conversations, honest story sharing, and the most hugs she’s ever received.

Johnson usually starts her support group sessions with the question, “who was forced to be here?” Everyone raises their hands. Camp Amanda the Panda isn’t the utopian summer camp that most kids beg their parents to attend. Kids often show up with slumped shoulders and low enthusiasm. But when they leave, they’ve had far more fun than they ever expected.

Challenging expectations is a recurring theme at Amanda the Panda. There are so many misconceptions surrounding grief that people often show up unsure if they’re doing it right or wrong. Camp and support groups allow individuals to grieve in a judgment free, supportive space. 

“That is one message that we say loud and clear at Amanda the Panda, whatever you’re feeling is normal,” Johnson said. “You can’t control those feelings when they happen so whatever it is, it’s totally normal.”

A common misconception about grief and Amanda the Panda services are that they are overwhelmingly sad—in reality, it’s not that simple. Group facilitators utilize the pie chart of emotion, which features a range of emotions like guilt, anger and even happiness.

“We’re connecting them on the emotion rather than the situation,” Johnson said.

The groups bring grieving individuals together and remind them that they’re not alone. One way that group facilitators do this is with an activity called “Me Too.” It starts with a ball of string and ends with a web of common threads. The group member with the string makes a personal statement like, “I like the color green,” and when someone responds, “me too,” the string gets passed to them. As the activity goes on, the statements get more emotional, opening the space as a safe place to share and be vulnerable.

Though progress with grief is less visible than it is with other hardships, Johnson always feels confident that she’s making a positive impact on these kids’ lives. Inevitably, they make an impact on hers too.

Johnson’s accidental-turned-influential involvement with Amanda the Panda has affected  each of her life roles. She credits her experience with Amanda the Panda for making her a better friend, daughter, and mom.

“If it weren’t for Amanda the Panda, I wouldn’t have known how to approach a friend who’s had a death,” Johnson said. 

At home her two kids, Ella and Miles, are only two and four, but the difficult conversations start early. Johnson is now equipped with the tools to take these discussions on with confidence. For example, her son Miles is “very in touch with his feelings,” specifically the feeling of anger, so Johnson has used what she’s learned volunteering to teach him productive coping skills. Miles has already mastered the art of screaming into a pillow.  

Death isn’t a foreign subject in their house either. Two years ago, when Johnson experienced a year of the most significant losses of her and her family’s life, she made sure her kids understood what was going on.

In that difficult time, Amanda the Panda reminded her that she wasn’t alone. Two years ago, when a man with a box full of presents came to her door, her journey came full circle. When she opened the door, she knew that the man was holding a Cheer Box, a package from Amanda the Panda of twelve gifts sent to help those who are grieving through the holiday season. The tears were immediate.

“They remembered,” Johnson said.

This story is an edited excerpt of a piece written by Drake University student Morgan Noll.