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Highmark Caring Place

Since 1997, the Highmark Caring Place, A Center for Grieving Children, Adolescents and Their Families, has offered help and hope to children and families grieving the death of a loved one through its support group services and other programs. The in-person groups, designed especially for children and their adults, and guided by the Caring Place’s specially trained volunteers, offer the children an opportunity to share their feelings, their frustrations, and their fears with other children who understand firsthand the loss of someone special to them.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated quarantine and social distancing, the Caring Place is not able to hold these support groups or other in-person programming. To address the grief of those losing loved ones during this pandemic, the Caring Place has created strategies to reach the children and families who need support while helping to keep them healthy and safe.

We recently spoke with Terese LaVallee, director of the Highmark Caring Place, to learn more about these efforts.

Monica Lewis (ML): How has the work of the Highmark Caring Place been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Terese LaVallee (TL): In these unprecedented times, we’re all coping with the fears, challenges and isolation that come with social distancing and needing to avoid close contact. But, for some families, this is compounded by the death of a loved one. Their grief, whether the loss occurred recently or happened some time ago, can be intensified by all the other losses that are happening during this time. In addition, at this point the usual customs that offer comfort to families — such as funerals, wakes, and memorial services —have been drastically altered. Just at the point in time when the in-person support groups the Caring Place provides would be especially helpful, they cannot be held during social distancing. So, we have adapted and innovated to create services that can still offer support to grieving families while helping everyone stay safe and well in the midst of a pandemic.

ML: What types of changes have you made?
TL: We are now connecting by phone with parents or other adults who are caring for children coping with loss and grief during this time, listening to their struggles and offering resources and activities that can help the children to manage their feelings. This includes not just new families experiencing loss, but the families we have been working with previously.

We have also created a special COVID-19 Resource Page on our website, which provides videos and articles for kids and their families, focusing on grief, managing anxiety and fear, how to cope with stress during the pandemic, tips on saying goodbye to a loved one even while social distancing, creative activities for kids, and how to talk with children about further losses that COVID-19 is bringing up.

One section of the page, titled “Hope through Children’s Books: Videos and Activities,” features Caring Place staff members reading children’s books on video. Each book has one or more associated activities which families can do at home to help explore more of the book’s themes while helping the children express their own feelings and thoughts.
There are also articles written by Caring Place staff members on various topics of interest at this time, and a section on funerals, focused on alternative ways of honoring loved ones when normal customs and traditions aren’t available.
Many of the resources available on our website are also provided through social media, like our “Hope through Children’s Books” videos on the Caring Place Facebook page and our Instagram channel.

In addition, we have created the Holding On To HOPE social media campaign, through which children and families can spread hope by sharing a photo or video message, using a template that features a butterfly, the universal symbol of hope. Holding On To HOPE offers a message of support for frontline caregivers, friends or family members who are challenged with grief during this time, and others who need support. The messages carry the hashtag #hope4COVID19, and are posted on the Caring Place website and social media platforms.

ML: How has the Caring Place utilized social media to connect with kids and families?
TL: Grieving children and families need to be supported. We continue to use our social media channels, now more than ever, to stay in touch with our families.

We have launched a private Facebook group geared toward adults so that we can support the adults who are supporting grieving children. It is by invitation only to adults who have contacted the Caring Place for services and we hope to continue offering this beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

And, most important, we have just launched a series of online support groups for children and teens through Zoom. This is a resource we would like to continue to offer in the future for families that can’t attend support groups in person because of distance or other circumstances.

Since March, the Caring Place’s sewing volunteers – who normally create beautiful quilts from quilt squares that Caring Place children make to commemorate a lost loved one -- have created 2,800 cloth masks for both children and adults. Approximately 1,100 have been distributed to Caring Place families. The remaining 1,700 were donated to Saint Vincent Hospital, Strong Vincent High School, Healthcare@Home and the AHN Pediatric Alliance in Pittsburgh.

ML: What advice can you offer to families struggling with the loss of a loved one during this pandemic?
TL: This is a stressful time for all families. Children are experiencing disrupted daily routines, the uncertainty of what the next day might bring, scary-sounding news updates, and an underlying mood of tension or concern in the adults around them. All of this understandably brings up feelings of worry, anxiety or fear in children. If children have also experienced the death of a loved one on top of this, they could easily be feeling this stress even more than most.
The following are some simple things that families can do to help their children in this stressful time:

  • Set up new routines as much as possible. The predictability and structure of routines can help children to feel safe.
  • Connect with some of the supportive people or positive outlets that the children might be missing right now. For example, they might e-mail a school counselor or take a virtual art class.
  • Offer brief, honest and age-appropriate information, answering questions honestly and correcting any misinformation that they might have heard.
  • Even more important sometimes than providing facts is exploring what children are thinking, wondering, or imagining about what is going on. This can be done by asking their question back to them, truly wanting to know what they think about the issues they bring up.
  • Communicate to children that their feelings are normal and to be expected in times like this. Maybe they feel multiple feelings at once, which is OK too.

For families who are grieving the death of someone special, whether that death occurred years ago or a few days ago, I would point them to the Caring Place website, and especially our COVID-19 page. Many resources are available there which can help both children and adults as they cope with grief in a difficult time.

In addition, families can stay connected with us on social media. There they can find further resources, while linking up with a larger community of families who have gone through similar experiences.

At the Caring Place, we begin and end every group with our Pledge, which we all say together: “I am here for you. You are here for me. We are here for each other.” We are here for each other, which is how we’ll get through this time in the best way.

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