By Rhonda Ryan, LMSW, Director, Family Support Program
Friends of Karen

Sadly, not all of the children we help at Friends of Karen survive their illness, but Friends of Karen’s help does not stop after the death of a child. Since the organization was established, we have been providing grief support to families.

Friends of Karen’s bereavement help includes supporting parents through phone calls and visits, support for siblings from our child life specialists and art therapists, grief books for parents and siblings, cards and small gifts to acknowledge the birthday of the deceased child or the anniversary of their death, and an annual memorial ceremony. We continue to send birthday gifts and holiday gifts to siblings for one year after the death of their brother or sister, so siblings know they are not forgotten.

This year, due to COVID, we found new ways of helping our bereaved families. One of those ways was to begin a virtual parent support group held on the third Thursday of every month. We have an English speaking and a Spanish speaking group running simultaneously. The groups are led by members of our Social Work team.

While we have run support groups in the past, we are finding virtual sessions are attended more regularly due to the convenience. Also, we can reach families in all three states we serve that otherwise would likely never meet, which has created a diverse group of parents who all share the same pain of losing a child due to illness.

Unlike other bereavement groups, our group is only for parents who have had a child die as a result of illness. The impact of that is clear, as one parent recently noted that “I went to another group, but I could not relate to other parents whose child did not die because of an illness, I need to talk about what my child went through, and everyone here understands.” Another parent added, “People compare the death of their mother or aunt or grandmother to the death of my child, but it’s not the same. Only this group can understand the pain and heartache of experiencing the death of our children.”

Another parent shared, “This is the only time I allow myself to really cry. It is my time to fall apart where my kids don’t see me.”

What I find most powerful about a group like this, is that parents actually think the thoughts they are having are crazy, until they hear what other bereaved parents are thinking, and then they realize they are not crazy after all. Going to a grief group often normalizes the grief process and this is critical because it helps people realize what they are experiencing is expected.

From my experience as a social worker, I know an effective group is one that works together and helps each other by making themselves vulnerable enough to share their pain and experiences. That communicates to the group that this is a safe space where they can help one another. From the feedback we have gotten from parents, we have achieved this safe space, as they often tell us how grateful they are for this group.

This safe space extends beyond the first year after families lose a child. We have families that attend the annual memorial ceremony each year and many parents remain feeling connected to Friends of Karen and stay in touch years after the death of their child because we were such a big part of their journey.