Childhood and death shouldn’t go together, but they often do.
That stark reality is prompting a movement within Westmoreland County to increase services for children grieving the death of a loved one — whether from suicide, an opioid overdose or natural causes.
“Our community was in great need,” said Maureen Ceidro, an Excela Health bereavement counselor. “There’s a lot of hurting hearts out there.”
In the fall, Excela Health Home Care & Hospice will start a family-based grief support program called Neighborhood Kids, designed specifically to help bereaved people ages 5-19.
The children’s support groups will be held at Excela Latrobe Hospital, Behavioral Health Building, and will be scheduled according to age: Sept. 16-Oct. 7 (ages 5-9), Oct. 15-Nov. 5 (10-13), Nov. 11-Dec. 3 (14-19).
The program is the first of its kind in Westmoreland County and one of the first tangible things to come out of a partnership involving Excela Health, the Saint Vincent College Fred Rogers Center and the Seton Hill University art therapy department.
In November, the partnership unveiled the brochure “When Someone Your Child Loves Dies,” a guide to services for bereaved children. The brochure refers people to the Excela Health grief support groups and to the Highmark Caring Place, with locations in Cranberry, Pittsburgh, Erie and Harrisburg.
The Neighborhood Kids program is the next step, giving Westmoreland County families that can’t go to Pittsburgh more local services, Ceidro said.
The program was announced last week at a daylong workshop at the Fred Rogers Center titled “It Takes a Neighborhood: The Call of Community to Care for Our Bereaved Children.”
Among those attending were bereavement counselors, social workers, psychiatric nurses, registered nurses, school counselors and behavioral health therapists.
Ceidro and fellow bereavement counselor Kristy Walter, who lead grief support groups for Excela Health Hospice, said the number of children touched by death in Westmoreland County is growing.
“We’re seeing a big shift and an increase in younger (hospice) patients in general, which is affecting younger children,” Walter said, noting that hospice has an average of 700 cases a year. “There’s a lot of children in that mix.”
Westmoreland County had an estimated 2,875 deaths in 2018, including 2,584 from natural causes, 58 from suicide, 21 from traffic crashes, six from homicide and 122 from opioid overdoses, according to the county coroner’s office.
Ceidro said the number of children affected by those deaths is in the thousands, many of whom are not getting grief services in Westmoreland County or are being referred out-of-county.
The Neighborhood Kids groups will use art, music and pet therapy to help children cope with grief and give families tools to use in the home, Ceidro said.