Fairview Youth Grief Services offers support groups and education for families rocked by profound loss.
Minneapolis-based Fairview Health started the program 15 years ago in response to an identified community need to support grieving children and families in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
The program last month received a 2015 AHA Hospital Award for Volunteer Excellence – or HAVE Award – for its commitment to community service at the AHA Annual Membership Meeting in Washington, D.C. The award recognizes outstanding volunteer programs and their contribution to patients, hospitals and communities.
The program provides separate but simultaneous grief support and education sessions for adults and children ages 6 to 17. The kids are placed into their own age grouping in different spaces of the room led by trained volunteers.
There are three sessions of between six to seven weeks held throughout the year. The sessions revolve around age-appropriate activities to help kids learn about death and grief through art, games, discussion and play. The program serves more than 250 children and adults a year, and has helped more than 5,000 children, teens, parents and caregivers since it began.
There also is an annual summer camp – Camp Erin – for about 70 kids held during the last weekend in July. The three-day outing balances outdoor fun with exercises designed to help children express their grief, build trust and self-esteem and begin to heal. One of the special moments takes place Saturday night, when the kids go down to the lake, light a luminary candle in a Styrofoam star and place it in the water to remember a loved one who has died.
“One by one the kids call their loved one’s name and light their luminary star on to the lake and that is powerful,” says program director Jenny Simmonds. “Even the little kids understand and are respectful. They understand how important it is because they all have their own loved ones who have passed.”
Simmonds says kids grieve differently than adults, and that can be unsettling for parents and caregivers. “We help parents understand that playing with Legos or being outside playing soccer is a healthy way to heal,” she says. “It doesn’t mean they are denying that the loss has happened. It is just how the grief manifests itself.”
Simmonds also leads grief support groups in schools and does regular presentations to help educate people in the community about childhood grief. “Grief does not discriminate,” she says. “It can impact anyone at any time.”
Volunteer and pediatric nurse Ashley Swannson trains other community and health system volunteers to help kids learn to deal with their grief. “They know how important it is and they want to have the skills to do it well,” she says. Nearly 100 volunteers are active in the program.
What Swannson finds most rewarding about the program is how the children support one another. “We often underestimate how intelligent and strong kids are even at age seven in order to take themselves through their path of healing in a way that is best for them,” she says.
Swannson cited an example from a recently completed group support session for young children. A seven-year-old boy told her that “‘sometimes you just got to fight through it and it’s going to be okay.’ And all the kids in the room nodded and agreed. It was so powerful.”
The health system offers Fairview Youth Grief Services at no charge to grieving families. The health system and its foundation cover about half of the program’s costs and provide other in-kind support. The rest comes from contributions from individuals and community organizations.
Renee Heimkes describes the program as “life changing” for her family. Her husband, Paul, died of a heart attack in 2011, when her children Hailey and Jake were seven and six, respectively. Heimkes and her children received counseling through Fairview Youth Grief Services, and Hailey and Jake went to Camp Erin.
“They treat the whole family,” Heimkes says. “You learn you are not alone.” Watch a video on Heimkes’s experience with Fairview Youth Grief Services.