Healing hearts of our children after traumatic loss

Lillie Welch (grandmother) and Janiyah Spratley at Camp Healing Hearts


By LaShante Keys, Empath Health Community Partnership Specialist

PINELLAS COUNTY – We mourn with heavy hearts after this recent Parkland school shooting tragedy. Too many young lives and people who shielded them are gone too soon. Too many survivors and loved ones are left behind to deal with this monumental, painful loss.

Shootings, suicides, accidental overdoses, car accidents and other sudden deaths strike unexpectedly and shake our worlds. It can be devastating for anyone to face such trauma. And as parents or guardians, we’re additionally responsible for helping our children find healing. We must ensure we meet the unique needs of those in the African-American community who’re dealing with grief and trauma.

Empath Health has come together to support children in south St. Petersburg who’ve experienced sudden deaths of loved ones. We recently held the first of three Healing Hearts grief camps for boys and girls ages eight to 13 at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve. The second camp’s scheduled at that same site on Saturday, March 10. Funding’s provided by an Empath Health Women’s Giving Network grant.

Karen David Pritchett, Diamond Chambers and Janiyah Spratley at the camp

Karen David Pritchett, Diamond Chambers and Janiyah Spratley at the camp

“I saw a need for the community because there had been a lot of traumatic events, including car accidents and other situations. I wanted to make sure there was a resource for the children. It’s the beginning of helping a community start to talk about grief because that can be a difficult situation. Hopefully, it’s a path to help children at an early age get introduced to being in touch with their emotions and living healthy lives,” explained Empath Health Director of Provider and Community Relations Karen Davis-Pritchett, who made the grant proposal.

Campers experienced a half-day of kinship, education and expression around death and the grief process in a peaceful outdoor setting. They were comforted by various fun and therapeutic activities with our staff and uplifted by words of inspiration from community leaders, including Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch and Pinellas County School Board Chair Rene Flowers. Activities included an ice breaker, creating masks, music therapy, nature walk, recreation, wooden heart memorial and circle of support.

Dee Brandon is a long-time Suncoast Hospice licensed social worker of more than 20 years. Brandon has a pediatric specialty and focuses on counseling critically ill or injured children. She assisted Davis-Pritchett with developing and facilitating camp activities.

“Being able to come back and work with the kids just warms my heart. Boyd Hill’s right in the neighborhood. It was so beautiful. All of the kids have had very significant losses. The camp really benefited the kids in a lot of ways because it put them in an environment where they could talk about their feelings with other kids. They really bonded. It was like sacred ground,” reported Brandon.

The children and their families learned about the stages, signs and healing of grief.

She explained, “Some kids were feeling a lot of sadness, had dreams about their loved ones or were nervous talking about their loved ones because they didn’t want to upset other people in their families. There may be anger or changes in behavior, sleeping patterns and appetites. Parents need to be aware of what to be looking for.”

The kids also learned how to move forward with their emotions in positive ways.

“All of the people there were so supportive of the kids. We helped show them that what they’re going through is normal, validated feelings, provided healthy coping mechanisms and encouraged finding a support system of safe people who they can talk to about their feelings. It was pretty amazing,” Brandon said.

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