Amy King received sympathy cards from complete strangers who read her daughter Gracie’s obituary.
Some included business cards for the Pathways Center for Grief & Loss, a program of Hospice & Community Care. At least one condolence sender —having lost someone to suicide — knew the specific sting that King’s family suddenly found itself facing nearly two years ago.
“They wrote in there something like, ‘You need to go to these people,’ ” says King, who lives in Lititz. “That was a Godsend. It’s been invaluable to our family.”
Gracie’s younger sister and her parents have since participated in Coping Kids & Teens — a free Pathways program that organizers are highlighting in conjunction with Children’s Grief Awareness Day. This year it’s this Thursday. So is Gracie’s birthday. She would be turning 18.
“When our daughter died, the most important thing to us was to figure out how to help our surviving daughter,” King says.
Now 13, that daughter is among 1 in 12 Pennsylvania children who experience the death of a parent or sibling by age 18, according to Judi’s House, a Denver, Colorado-based grief center. Experts say children’s grieving process is often overlooked.
In Coping Kids & Teens, children and teens meet in peer support groups. Adults meantime learn how to manage the challenges of supporting grieving teens and children.
Counselors complete assessments prior to attending to determine if the group will be helpful. Because of the pandemic, all support is now being offered virtually or over the phone.
“Oftentimes what we do as adults is feel like we have to fix it,” says Diane Kulas, coordinator and bereavement counselor at Pathways. “What we have to remember is that grief is caused by the love that the child has for the person who has died.”
Pathways leaders reframe that for adults.
“We say: You can’t fix it. And in some ways you don’t want to,” Kulas says. “Because you don’t want to take that love away from that child.”
Grieving children want to be heard, she says, adding that listening is one of the most important things adults can do.
Many parents also worry about talking about how a person has died —particularly if it’s to something like suicide or a drug overdose.
“There’s a lot of concern. The family is afraid that if the child knows the true cause of death then that’s going to impact how they view that person and it’s going to change the importance of the relationship,” Kulas says. “But when the family tells them the truth, that sets the tone to feel more supported and more willing to talk.”
Members of the Pathways team visited Gracie’s school, Warwick High School. after her suicide in December 2018. They had been there about six weeks prior after two students were killed in a vehicle crash in front of the school. Pathways team members met school staff as well as students.
“For us, the idea that we do need to do self care and think about how we were responding to things — so we could then appropriately respond to students and their families — was a big lesson for us,” says Warwick Superintendent April Hershey.
“Patti and her team are amazing. Such caring individuals. We still have contact with them frequently,” she says. “They’re like first responders for mental and emotional health, and we're so blessed to have a relationship with them.”
She’s referring to Patti Anewalt, director of the Pathways Center. Anewalt stressed that the center —which serves children and adults — is Hospice’s way to give back to a community that she says is so generous with its support of events like the annual Labor Day auction.
Addressing the needs of grieving children is especially important in the era of a pandemic, she says.
“All kids grieve in their own way. And it’s different for each child,” Anewalt says. “But I think many elements of COVID-19 have intensified the characteristics.”
Grieving children often struggle academically. Virtual learning and adjusted school schedules can complicate that. Anewalt says grieving children feel alone. Social distancing can make it more so.
“And the biggest thing that grieving children and teens worry about is that someone else is going to die,” she says. “Someone they care about has died and they wonder, ‘Who else?’ ”
With the pandemic and associated media attention, children are constantly reminded that this could actually happen, she says.
“So it’s so critical that families talk about the questions kids have,” Anewalt says. “They don’t want these kids to internalize all this.”
Amy King understands that. She is an author and a public speaker who has for years traveled to talk at schools.
“I’ve been talking about mental health issues in teenagers for years and it turned out my daughter had a mental illness,” she says.
Professionally, King knew some of what to expect after Gracie died. Personally, she struggled with the same hurdles others must overcome.
“I can get up on a stage 20 times a year and talk to young people about trauma,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean when I experienced it that I’d fall out of the norm.”
So many decisions can be tricky when it comes to helping a child grieve, she says.
“I can’t just suddenly show a picture of Gracie to my surviving daughter or even to my husband. Sometimes they don’t want that,” she says. “It’s little things like that. You can’t figure out when you need to hold back. And then you end up apologizing. It is a funky balance and you learn it as you go.”
Pathways has helped her navigate.
“They’re constantly reminding you that grief is always a moving target —especially with young people,” King says. “They are adapting. They’re growing. They’re changing. So you have to allow that. Be patient. And be patient with yourself, too.”
Gracie’s obituary described how the 16-year-old enjoyed making puns and funny movies with her younger sister. It also detailed her love of art and nature, her desire to help others and her talent for playing and composing music on the piano, saxophone, ukulele and guitar.
“She loved music. Very much so,” says her mother. “Gosh, she was music.”
Gracie was born in Ireland. She liked Mike and Ike candy.
“I still have a box on my desk to remember her by and to eat every now and again … but anyway,” King says, taking a deep breath and pivoting the conversation back to what Pathways has done for her daughter.
“When you lose a sibling — someone who was so bright — you feel alone. Your loss feels like the biggest,” King says. “You feel that no one could understand.”
Combine that with the stigma often associated with suicide and the potential for isolation is immense, she adds. That’s partly why being in a group experiencing all kind of losses under varied circumstances was key, she says.
King recalls the moment when she saw her surviving daughter hugging and comforting a young teen in the group who had lost a service dog.
“As a parent, it broke my heart. But it also made my heart so big. Because I realized just how good that was for her,” King says. “She saw that loss is loss. And it gave her a chance not to be isolated in her own grief.”
King says pride isn’t quite the right word for what she felt seeing that hug.
“But to watch her respect grief?” she says. “It’s like watching your kid respect the ocean.”