Guest column: Grieving during COVID-19 and the concept of virtual support groups

Angela Melvin
Special to The News-Press
Angela Melvin is founder and president of Valerie's House.

COVID-19 has stirred up an array of emotions in the children and families around the country. For children who are struggling with the recent death of their parent or sibling, the emotions are even more heightened and intense.  These children already feel singled out, alone, and often times angry and confused about why the person who they loved so much was taken from them.

I was on the phone checking in on one of our families this week, a mother of two whose husband died suddenly in a work-related accident three months ago in Cape Coral.  She told me her nine-year-old son said, “Mom, first I lose my Dad, then my school and sports and now I can’t see friends.  Why does God hate us?”

These words are hard to hear, as we can only imagine how children, especially those who have already lost so much, might feel right now.  Valerie’s House was created as a “home away from home” and to be a sense of community for families to grieve together and heal together.  No Child Grieves Alone is what we always say. 

With COVID-19, our physical doors to our house for those grieving had to close.  I held back tears as we placed a sign on the front door Friday that we were closed until further notice and then changed the voicemail to reflect my cell phone number.  Preventing isolation is the very reason Valerie’s House exists. When we received word from the Centers for Disease Control  advising that large groups over 50 must be cancelled, I knew we had to rethink how we could help families grieving. 

On a given group night, we can easily top 50 participants, with parents, children and volunteers.  Under the best of circumstances grief can feel isolating, so during this time it’s especially important to cultivate social connections. 

The day after the CDC’s announcement I called a meeting and asked our team to research everything we could on the safest and most effective way to conduct a grief support group over the internet.  After various webinars, conference calls, and emails to those in our network of others helping children around the country, we chose a platform that was easy to manage no matter what your technological background and, most importantly, safe and HIPAA compliant.  That means it has a heightened sense of security and other confidential barriers. 

We have had a great response from our families, and especially children who are grateful for the opportunity to stay connected  and share what is on their minds.  The children will be in chat rooms with their same friends and facilitators that they have come to know and trust. 

We are keeping the same schedule so children will continue to look forward to their assigned day of the week with their friends.  We will launch 28 separate groups the week of March 30th.  Some people wonder what, if anything, can really be accomplished in a virtual grief support group?  We know that they will be a great benefit.  The children will know they are not alone, and be reminded of that every time they join in and see the smiling faces of their friends back at them.

We will continue to keep the dialogue open about whatever is on their minds concerning their loss of their parent or sibling, or about the new losses they are feeling today with the change in their routine.  We are using the term physical distancing rather than social distancing in recognition that it’s important to be connected while being physically apart. We may be physically distancing ourselves, but we are certainly going to stay close to each other and those we trust more than ever. 

If you know of someone grieving the loss of someone they love, especially if the death occurred in the wake of the COVID-19, please have them email me directly at angela@valerieshouseswfl.org.

Angela Melvin is the Founder and CEO of Valerie’s House, a non-profit dedicated to helping children grieve the loss of a loved one.  www.valerieshouseswfl.org

Resources for those Grieving During COVID-19

  • www.valerieshouseswfl.org/covid19-resources
  • Grieve, Love, Heal podcast, produced by Valerie’s House, on all streaming channels including Apple, Google, Spotify, iheartradio.
  • If you don’t have access to technology, consider writing letters and postcards to friends.