Five Ashland children gather each week to remember, grieve, talk about and have fun with the memory of their late father — but this time it's different.

Five Ashland children gather each week to remember, grieve, talk about and have fun with the memory of their late father — but this time it's different.

With the help of singer-songwriter Gene Burnett, they spontaneously compose a song about the life of their dad, Jim McCallan — a sensitive and creative man and Marine Corps veteran who "chose to complete his mission" last December, says his widow, Amy McCallan.

There are no tears among the children, Taryn, 11, Rayme, 10, Avrey, 8, Kane, 6, and Devroe, 2.

But they are learning to speak freely, not so much about their grief, but about the fun they had with their 44-year-old father.

Despite a range of mental health issues that led to his suicide, Jim McCallan loved the forest, enjoyed watching crows and was quiet, says Taryn, "like a winter night."

Picking up his guitar, Burnett strums and picks on three chords, singing a haunting melody:

"Like a crow singing in the forest, he was sad and quiet, like a winter night."

The children, clearly touched, are seeing Dad in "new and wonderful ways, sharing their expressions of him on such a powerful new avenue," says Sherry Nurre, who created the children's grief support group at Bellview Elementary School as her capstone project for a degree in Human Communication from Southern Oregon University.

"People usually don't have the opportunity to grieve the dead," says Nurre. "If that happens, they turn to drugs and alcohol. My passion is that they get a chance to process the grief. The more they can talk about it, the lighter they feel."

Burnett, a Taoist and tai chi teacher who has written more than 600 songs in four decades as a performer and recording artist locally, says he sees "most depression as interrupted grief — and music helps break that chain."

The kids volunteer more stories about dad. He liked his coffee at 4 in the morning. He was tall, warm, generous, had a mustache, always asked whether you had a good day. He liked to play in the ocean, loved camping, fishing, hiking. He was a computer tekkie. He'd make the kids study three hours a night. He was a poet, like daughter Taryn. He loved to catch fireflies on a summer night.

Burnett weaves all these into a song. The kids smile and clap. Burnett shares stories of his dad and how the man, noticing his son's singing and sense of rhythm, gave him a guitar at age 8, making him promise to play it daily for three months — despite the pain in his fingertips.

"If the song doesn't feel good in your heart, it's not a good song, not yet," says Burnett, "and you have to keep playing with it till it comes out right."

The kids say the song came out right on the first try. After a romp on the playground, they light votive candles and thank their dad for various memories.

Burnett and WinterSpring Executive Director Julie Lockhart join in with thoughts of their fathers. Lockhart's daughter, Emma Durbin, 15 — who lost her dad at age 6 — is co-facilitator of the group.

"It's important to me that kids better their lives and not let grief overcome them," says Durbin. "It's empowering and helps them to be better people. Play and drawing help a lot."

The mission of the group, says Lockhart, is "to help them feel normal and not alone and weird. A lot of kids in this situation are floundering and don't know how to deal with their grief."

While counseling is helpful, this group and a similar one in Medford, use the "companioning model," based on peer-to-peer contact, supportive listening and reflecting what the person is saying and feeling, says Lockhart.

"The fact is, people never do get over it," Lockhart says, "but they do get coping skills. They find them in group activities. If they don't want to talk, they say, 'I pass.' They do rituals, light candles for loved ones, do child-friendly guided meditations."

Nurre's processes include going to a favorite spot in your mind, visualizing the loved one, saying things you'd wished you'd said in life, sharing your latest accomplishments, connecting to the person with a pink rainbow.

"The playful rituals create a different relationship to that person, though not on this plane anymore. It gives the kids permission to grieve in their own ways," Lockhart says.

Arriving to pick up her kids, Amy McCallan notes, "It's amazing. It's helped the kids a lot. They love it and can't wait to come back. It's their time. It's helped me a lot and given me ideas for the coping we have to do."

Reflecting on the evening's accomplishments, Nurre says, "This is heart work and I swear it has guardian angels who show up each time and help with the healing."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at