Submitted by Cornerstone Hospice and Palliative Care
Kristen Nardolillo has seen a huge increase in children who are grieving. As Cornerstone Hospice’s Children’s Bereavement Counselor, Nardolillo is on the front line dealing with students trying to cope with loss.
But Nardolillo does not attribute this abundance of grief only to the passing of loved ones.
“Just about everyone has experienced dramatic changes due to the pandemic. But for kids, the lockdowns, mask-wearing, attending school virtually and social distancing has been traumatic,” said Nardolillo, a licensed clinical social worker, at the non-profit which serves Lake, Sumter, Orange, Osceola, Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties in Central Florida as well as several North Georgia counties. “Their worlds have been turned upside down and children often don’t have the tools to cope.”
Nardolillo cites a support group she has been facilitating at a local middle school as an example: “For the past few months, I’ve been meeting with the best friends of a young boy who tragically died from a gunshot wound. Although the group was formed to help the boys grieve the loss of their best friend, the weekly discussions have turned to a lot of anger towards the pandemic, because they could not spend time with their friend before his passing,” said Nardolillo. “Grieving a death of any sort, let alone the unexpected loss of your best friend, is very hard. These boys are placing blame on the virus for memories they didn’t get to make with their friend due to social distancing.”
A national emergency
According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), pediatric emergency department visits have increased 24% for children aged 5 – 11 and 31% for 12–17-year-olds.
The emergency room is often the first point of care for children’s mental health emergencies, according to the CDC. The study attributed the increase in visits to mental health syndromes that often result after disaster events, such as stress, anxiety, acute posttraumatic stress disorder and panic.
“Children are experiencing financial insecurity due to parents losing their jobs, lost companionship with grandparents, extended family and friends due to social distancing, illness or even death. They have difficulty keeping up grades and concentrating on schoolwork in remote classrooms. They feel isolated,” said Nardolillo. “As an adult who is trained to help others with mental health issues, even I struggle to cope with changes caused by COVID-19.”
Last May, Nardolillo and the other Cornerstone Hospice bereavement counselors began offering free, virtual support groups where participants could share their feelings and find mutual strength in a safe, secure environment. The support group offerings were also expanded to specific populations, such as healthcare workers, first responders, caregivers, and students.
A safe space to deal with loss
For more than 20 years, Cornerstone Hospice has offered Camp Bridges to students in its children’s bereavement program. The volunteer-run weekend event, which will be held this May at the Florida Elks Youth Camp in Umatilla, includes games, crafts, outdoor activities, and music. Campers share stories about lost loved ones and express their feelings with peers. Many of the volunteer counselors attended Camp Bridges when they were children.
Last April would have been Nardolillo’ s first year leading Camp Bridges, as her predecessor retired in late 2019. But like most other events, it was canceled because of COVID-19 concerns.
“It was heartbreaking. I knew there were so many kids who looked forward to the experience at camp,” said Nardolillo. “We didn’t want to wait a year to offer a fun
outlet for the kids in our bereavement program, plus we saw a need to address mental health concerns of students whose struggles with grief aren’t necessarily tied to death. So, Cornerstone’s Kids was born.”
Cornerstone’s Kids offers a variety of activities each month that children can participate in while getting the support they need to feel safe, secure, and happy. Nardolillo utilizes art therapy, creative writing storytelling, play therapy and visualization as well as socially entertaining events to help children explore their thoughts and feelings.
“Some activities are specifically geared toward bereavement but others, such as movie and game nights, are open to any child,” said Nardolillo. “Cornerstone’s Kids offers a community where they can be engaged with peers and enjoy healthy and positive interactions.”
A weekly Kids Yoga class is a favorite of two young brothers who have been participating since May, “Almost every week, they tell me how happy they are to be doing yoga with the group, then tell me again at the end of class how excited they are for next week,” said Nardolillo. “It tells me how significant the need is for kids to feel connected to each other during this time.”
In February, Nardolillo has planned several Valentine’s Day-related activities, including a Valentine making workshop, a Dance Party, and a Valentines to Heaven event for children in the bereavement program.
All Cornerstone’s Kids activities are held weekdays, from 4:30 – 5:30 p.m. to accommodate school schedules. Children and families register to join Cornerstone’s Kids for free and receive access to members’ only activities and resources to help the entire family. For now, all activities are held virtually.
“It’s important to remember that grief is a natural reaction to loss, whether a loved one passed away or because some constant in your life is gone. If not addressed, grief can have a devastating impact on a child’s ability to focus on day-to-day tasks, can lead to grades dropping and a loss of interest in activities. Parents and caregivers should pay attention to major behavioral shifts that could be a sign of depression,” said Nardolillo. “I am proud that Cornerstone’s Kids is now available as a free resource, providing the support families need to prevent these issues from exacerbating in the future.”
For more information about Cornerstone’s Kids, visit CornerstoneHospice.org/Cornerstones-Kids, or call 866.742.6655.