WHEN Fiona, a mother of four from Kildare, separated from her husband five years ago, she found the experience tough going.
As well as her own emotional struggles, she worried about the effect on her kids, aged between seven and 13.
"We were all in shock, and I was at a loss how to help my children get through it," she recalls.
Then she found Rainbows, an unusual organisation with a radical approach -- let the kids help each other come to terms with the loss of a parent or loved one through separation or bereavement.
"We put together small groups of children of a similar age, experiencing a similar loss," says Rainbows director Anne Staunton.
"We find the weekly meetings help them to identify their feelings and articulate them. You see this bring about a wonderful change."
As divorce rates soar, the organisation has grown from about 10 groups in the 1980s to now reach more than 30,000 children around the country, who are often recommended as part of family court hearings.
The service is run by volunteers, and there are at least 2,500 nationwide, with one adult supervising each session. Many are teachers, as the Rainbows groups are often held at schools after hours. Family support centres and community halls are other common venues.
"It was a godsend," recalls Fiona, who discovered Rainbows three years ago.
"My marriage broke up because of infidelity so there was a lot of anger, and sending the kids to Rainbows gave them the chance to have their own time to talk about their feelings to others who understood. I dropped them off to meetings for an hour-and-a-half and went for a walk."
Organisers stress that Rainbows is not a counselling service. "We can't fix the original problem -- that's not our purpose," says Ms Staunton who has worked with the organisation for 18 years. "The groups give young people the coping skills to help them deal with what is happening in their life."
Demand for the service is outstripping supply -- 100 new groups have been set up since last September alone, and a call asking about places at a new Rainbows group being set up in Baldoyle, in north Dublin, does not get an encouraging response. "We have no places until well after summer," says the apologetic co-ordinator.
Family separation is becoming more common, and while the fabric of our society is changing, many of the structures remain the same, with little in place to cope with these emerging social dilemmas.
"If a parent dies, that's terrible, and there's a lot of help for the kids, as there should be," says Ms Staunton. "But if mum and dad announce they're separating at the weekend, often their child is expected to be at school business-as-usual on Monday morning."
Fiona says "it's made clear to parents that the group sessions aren't a counselling service.
"It gives the kids a voice and a chance to vent their feelings with their peers. Well, that's what it did for mine," she says.
"They say it takes a village to rear a child, and I feel that's where Rainbows steps in."
Or as one Rainbows 10-year-old puts it: "Now I know what people go through, and I'm not alone."
For more details visit their website at www.rainbowsireland.com
Health & Living