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By: Amy J. Barry

Families are gathered together in an opening ceremony at one of The Cove For Grieving Children sites.

Not so long ago, a grieving family had nowhere to turn for guidance and support after the death of a loved one. Luckily, the critical need for grief support for children and families is now recognized and programs are provided in many states to help families process their grief and begin to heal.

The Cove for Grieving Children in Connecticut is truly a shelter from the storm for the bereaved. It was one of the country’s first support groups for young people. In seven locations throughout the state—and growing—the 20-week program is held two Sundays a month for kids ages 4 to 17 and their parents or caretakers. A clinical social worker is the site director at each Cove, and trained volunteers act as facilitators. There is no charge to attend.

According to Mary Andersen, executive director of The Cove, the reason it’s so important that programs like this exist for grieving children is because children and teens who have unresolved grief have significantly lower academic achievement, substance abuse, higher school drop-out rates, depression, and issues with violence and aggression than their peers.

Mary explains that what The Cove does is therapeutic versus therapy and gives children a safe place to express their feelings among those in their age group.

“It normalizes the grief experience because they see others grieving the death of a parent, sibling, teacher, friend, and see that other children are also grieving,” she says.

And parents also greatly benefit from the program.

“It really provides an education as well for parents on how they can support their child’s grieving and healing processes and also supplies a network of other grieving families that can provide support for each other,” Mary says. “Parents who have been in The Cove for a while can act as mentors for other parents. It’s the same with the kids who have moved on to be junior facilitators.”

Everyone participates in an opening and closing ceremony and shares a meal together. In between, children meet in peer groups by age with a Cove facilitator and do age-appropriate activities. Simultaneously, parents and caregivers meet together with the site director, who educates them about their child’s grieving process and explains the activities in which the children will be participating.

Mary notes that 70 to 80 percent of Cove activities are arts based: movement, sculpture, painting, journaling, poetry, music, video, etc.

“We allow children the opportunity to express their feelings in a safe environment, share their artwork, and explain what it represents to them,” Mary says. “We’ll give them a theme: ‘What does anger look like?’ ‘What does healing look like?’ It’s about accessing feelings and finding avenues for expressing those feelings.”

Mary stresses that The Cove also provides ways to strengthen families and improve family communication.

A dad and his daughter are working on a family writing activity at The Cove.A dad and his daughter are working on a family writing activity at The Cove.“Often in a family environment, you’re protecting each other,” she says. “Sometimes painful feelings won’t be addressed because family members don’t want to upset each other, although sometimes [addressing those feelings] is what’s needed the most. Sometimes we find families say their children aren’t expressing their feelings about the death and then come into The Cove and immediately start expressing their feelings.”

The grief journey is an ongoing process and Mary says that Cove facilitators regularly check in on how the family is doing, asking, “What did the family look like before the death, and what does it look like now, and how has that changed?”

“We provide tools for healing and understanding,” she says. “This is what a ‘new normal’ looks like for your family. It’s about learning coping skills, sharing, and learning from others, and realizing you’re not alone in this process.”

Camp Erin: A Getaway for Grieving Kid

Camp Erin is the largest nationwide network of free bereavement camps for children and teens ages 6-17 who have experienced the death of someone close to them.

To date, the weekend-long overnight camp has 46 locations in the U.S. and was created and funded by the Moyer Foundation in memory of Erin Metcalf, a 17-year-old girl who died in 2000 and was a close friend of Jamie Moyer (former All-Star pitcher for the Seattle Mariners) and the Moyer family. The camps are held different weekends in each state throughout the summer.

A child has painted the word “Daddy” on a garden stepping-stone during an art activity at The Cove.A child has painted the word “Daddy” on a garden stepping-stone during an art activity at The Cove.In 2013 the Moyer Foundation gave The Cove Center for Grieving Children a grant to launch Camp Erin in Connecticut. The Camp, facilitated by Cove professionals and trained volunteers is held each year in early June, hosted by Camp Awosting in Morris, CT.

“The purpose is to allow fun camp experiences in addition to bereavement processing,” Mary notes.

To find a Camp Erin location near you visit

https://www.moyerfoundation.org/programs/CampErin.

A Family’s Personal Story of Healing

When 16-month-old Gavin died suddenly three years ago, it was a devastating blow to his family. Doctors did not know why the happy, seemingly healthy little boy died, although they were given a name for what happened: the Sudden, Unexplained Death of a Child (SUDC).

Gavin is survived by his parents, Suzanne and Michael LaBella; his twin sister, Maris; and older sister Gia, who was almost six years old at the time of Gavin’s death.

“Since Gavin died suddenly—and even when you’re prepared, it’s always sudden—the first couple of months we were in a daze, trying to figure out what happened and where we belonged,” Suzanne recalls.

“Maris was obviously very young, but Gia had lots of questions, and we were in our own world, trying to figure out what to do, what this new world looked like.”

“Gia would talk to anyone who would listen—the butcher in the grocery store, a stranger on the street,” Michael adds.

“Some people would know what to say and others were awkward and didn’t believe her. People don’t always believe a child,” Suzanne says.

And as wonderful as the school was in response to their sorrow, the couple agrees that they didn’t really know what to say or do for Gia.

So, Suzanne started googling `and didn’t come up with anything that would be helpful to Gia or the family as a whole.

“We looked into therapy, but she was so young, we didn’t think it was the right thing to do and I didn’t want to send Gia off to some therapist without me,” Suzanne says.

Then she found The Cove the following September, which had a location in Easton, Connecticut, not far from their home in Fairfield.

“They nailed it on the head,” Suzanne says. “The Cove has taught us to incorporate Gavin into our lives in a positive way—not all about the loss, but remembering that person.”

Maris is old enough now to attend The Cove and Michael says, “Every other Sunday we go as a family and participate. Both the girls look forward to going. They know they’ll be around other people and do some fun things. And they have other kids—some have lost a sibling, mothers or fathers. Even if their situations aren’t the same, they connect. They play together, run around, and talk about their loss.”

In talking about Gavin with her children, Suzanne emphasizes that one of the things The Cove taught her is to be honest, and to be as simple and straightforward as possible.

“One thing about The Cove that stands out is that a lot of the counselors are younger, but have gone through some kind of loss and kids can relate to them,” Michael points out. “I’ve seen how Gia will engage with some of the counselors. She loves them and looks forward to seeing them. The Cove doesn’t feel institutional; it’s very comfortable, friendly, homey. No one judges you. I’m so glad we found this. I know it has made a difference in Gia, too. Having an outlet where she can be herself and have no fear is invaluable and helps build her confidence.”

“I knew we were going to be okay after Gavin died because we were able to communicate,” Suzanne reflects. “When we were able to come up for air as a family, [we thought] this is horrible. I wanted us to come up for air and be okay. I’m so glad there’s an organization that can bring us together.”

To find out more about The Cove, visit covect.org online or call 203-634-0500. To find a support group for grieving children in another state, contact The National Alliance for Grieving Children (www.nationalallianceforgrievingchildren.org), which lists all bereavement agencies in the U.S.

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