Connected by COVID-19: Healing Patch Supports Families Impacted by COVID-19 Deaths
During the last two years, there have been many statistics about how our world, nation, state, and communities have been impacted by COVID-19. A startling number to consider is the more than 167,000 children – roughly one in 450 of all children in the United States – who have lost at least one of their caregivers to COVID-19, according to COVID Collaborative. As local children are being affected, the Healing Patch Children’s Grief Program has experienced an increasing number of calls from caregivers reaching out for support.
“Over the past several months, almost every other call has been related to a COVID-19 death,” shares Healing Patch Coordinator Melody Ray. The Healing Patch has supported more than 20 families who are dealing with a COVID-19 death, most of which occurred since November 2021. The Healing Patch provides a safe place for grieving families to share and process through family sessions at centers in Altoona or Ebensburg or through in-school support groups.
“Social support, including validation and expression of thoughts and feelings following a death, is critical for healthy development,” Ray says. “The Healing Patch is just one avenue for children and families to have this grief need met. Peer support group programs, although not therapy or counseling, can help prevent unhealthy coping and decrease the likelihood of complicated grief. We can be one important piece to the family’s puzzle of rebuilding after the death.”
Death of a parent to COVID-19 can create unique challenges for families. Although COVID-19 is an illness, death can occur within weeks of infection, not months or years like many other illnesses. Sudden deaths may involve trauma and permit less time for social supports and other protective factors to be initiated. In some cases, parents are dying unexpectedly at home with children present. In other cases, caregivers are dying in the hospital, and children may not be able to visit due to their own COVID-19 infections. In addition to these complications to the grieving process, families may also feel a social stigma related to the COVID-19 death and be hesitant to share the cause of the death because of others’ judgments.
“Although we’ve all suffered loss and disappointments over the last two years, the death of a primary caregiver far outweighs all other types of losses,” shares Healing Patch Volunteer Coordinator/Grief Specialist Shalen Steinbugl. “Someday, hopefully, ‘normalcy’ will return, but these kids’ parents/caregivers won’t be here to see it. I’m so glad that families in our area have reached out to the Healing Patch for support on how to navigate life without their loved one. My hope is that they realize that they are not alone and that they make lifelong connections with other kids who lost their parent or caregiver far too soon.”
Among those seeking support in increased numbers are older children and teens. Trends locally and nationally show this group being impacted at a higher rate by caregiver loss to COVID-19. According to Ray, teens were previously the hardest age group to engage in a peer support group, and there is now a waiting list for enrollment in the Teen or Tween/Teen rooms at both centers.
In addition, local school counselors in Blair, Bedford, and Cambria counties have noted more primary caregiver deaths affecting their students, sparking increased interest in “Patch Club” in-school grief support groups. Steinbugl recalls one recent activity that was beneficial for a group she facilitated.
“Participants drew a target on a bed sheet,” Steinbugl explains. “Inside the target, they wrote all the things that anger them, such as losing their person, not getting to say goodbye, fighting with siblings, doing homework, etc. One of the children who lost a parent to COVID-19 wrote ‘COVID’ on the target. When it came time to throw bean bags at the target to release some of their frustration and anger, that particular student, along with others who also lost a parent to COVID-19, aimed heavily at the word. We discussed how it felt good to let out some of this anger in a healthy way, and we talked about other positive ways in which they could release their anger.”
Providing a safe and supportive environment to express emotions and process grief with others, the Healing Patch can offer hope and healing as families remember their loved ones and look to the future.
“My daughter enjoys being at the Healing Patch, and she sees that she is not the only one going through this,” one local mom shares. “She loves coming, and to see that smile on her face when we get her out of her group just reassures me that she will get through this. I have noticed that she has had less emotional breakdowns since coming to the Healing Patch.”
How to support a family that lost a loved one to COVID-19:
- Show Up. Calling, texting, helping with daily activities/transportation, and making or buying a meal are all acts of love that are generally highly appreciated.
- Listen more, talk less. Many bereaved express how helpful a nonjudgmental listening ear can be as they are grieving. Acknowledging how devastating this loss has been on the family goes a long way.
- Encourage healthy coping. Encourage the bereaved to express their grief in ways that are not going to be harmful to themselves, others or property.
“On the other end of the spectrum, here is what not to do: give unsolicited advice, minimize their grief experience, place timeframes on the grief process, and abandon them. We have been told these are some of the most painful acts families endure after a loss,” Ray says. “For those who want to help, efforts to be present, listen, and provide healthy encouragement are noticed and appreciated. Many bereaved tell us that the people who do these things are life-savers in their grief journey.”
For more information about Healing Patch services or volunteer opportunities, please visit www.facebook.com/healingpatchchildrensgriefprogram or call 1-800-445-6262.
For more information about support for families whose loved one has died from COVID-19, visit Resources – COVID Survivors for Change.
For more information about the impact of COVID-19 deaths on children, here are some recent articles:
About the Healing Patch
The Healing Patch Children’s Grief Program began in 2006 as a free peer support program for children and their families who have suffered the loss of a loved one, such as a parent, sibling, grandparent, or close family member. Since that time, the program has expanded to support children through in-school services, grief resources, and other community services. Sharing memories and experiences allows grieving children and families to discover that what they are going through is normal and that hope and healing are possible. The Healing Patch is a free service to the community and relies on individual and community donations, grants, and fundraising events for support. To learn more, call 1-800-445-6262 or visit homenursingagency.com.