Editor’s note: This is the latest installment in an occasional series called Maine Acts of Kindness, highlighting volunteer and philanthropic efforts during the pandemic.

Jess Healy of Portland is a member of the Center for Grieving Children’s bereaved parents group. Her peer support meetings have shifted online during the coronavirus outbreak. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Jess Healy saw the familiar faces on her computer screen and immediately felt a sense of relief. Then she cried.

Healy is a member of the Center for Grieving Children’s bereaved parents group. Her daughter, Antonia Daley, died on June 19, 2018, from meningitis, 10 days after graduating from Portland High School.

Healy had been attending the center’s weekly peer support group since September, but the coronavirus outbreak forced the in-person sessions to be discontinued. Anne Heros, CEO of the Center for Grieving Children, knew the agency had to reach out to its clients somehow. So the center set up Zoom sessions to allow the group sessions to continue online.

“It’s obviously not the ideal,” said Heros. “But it is a very important piece for these families.”

Healy, 41, said the Zoom sessions are not the same as sitting in a circle with a peer group. “But it is a profound substitute,” she said. “The fact that the center chose to go above and beyond to create this platform for us sends a message to us, that we matter.

“Grieving and bereavement, especially a child loss, is not a linear process with a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s a pain you carry forever and you have to learn to carry that pain and grieve. For me, (the Zoom sessions) are great. The message from the center is that we’re not going to abandon you in this pandemic. They created a lifeline and a place we can still gather.”

That’s why she became so emotional during the first Zoom group session. “On that first night, our facilitator opened by saying, ‘This is where you belong,’ ” said Healy. “And I just filled with tears. Whether it’s on Zoom meetings, or the phone, or face-to-face, my bereavement support group is the one place I know I definitely belong to on this planet.”

Steve Hart, a peer group facilitator who has volunteered at the center for 17 years, said the pandemic is also adding another layer to the grief and stress participants are facing.

“When you have a loss, there is isolation, a feeling of loneliness,” he said. “And now you add this, with its own aspects of isolation, and how it compounds it. It’s very important for people to be together. We’re more aware of it now than ever.”

The Center for Grieving Children is a nonprofit organization with locations in Portland and Sanford. It was founded in 1987 by Bill Hemmens following the death of his sister. At the time, its mission was to supply peer group support for children dealing with grief. That has expanded now to include teenagers, young adults, families and older adults.

There are over 350 volunteers at the center, which in the last year has served 743 participants, including 480 children. It also provided phone or email support to 1,088 individuals – and it continues to take calls during the pandemic. Its services are all free.

Heros said the center had conducted some other Zoom chats since the start of the pandemic, including a professional conference for over 120 people and reaching out to the volunteers. The agency explored how to do the same for its peer support group members.

“We also did a webinar that was about stress and grief and isolation and had over 150 sign up,” said Heros. “That’s important. Everybody is experiencing stress and isolation and grief. Grief isn’t limited to death. We’re trying to reach out to the community, so we can reach as many people as possible.”

There was a lot to consider when setting up the Zoom chats. The center breaks down the peer groups by age groups: children, teens, young adults, adults, families. They needed to assess the online capabilities of the families involved, to also make sure the participants on the Zoom chats were in a safe place at home where they could talk openly. They had to shift the times for the sessions. Normally the center would serve 10 peer group sessions a night, five nights a week.

They couldn’t do that with Zoom chats, so they are adding groups “as we build the capacity of the on-line platform we are using,” said Heros. Groups now meet every other week via Zoom.

Hart, 64, said the virtual chat isn’t the same as being in the same room, but “it’s better than not seeing people. I think they’re grateful for it. To see each other, to hear each other … the center is doing everything it can to support them.”

He added that the center is exploring other methods to reach out via Zoom, like having virtual “breathing exercises, yoga exercises with the family. We’re trying to do something for everyone. Being able to express yourself in a safe way is important, especially for young children.”

Drew York, a 23-year-old peer group facilitator, said the rapport that the group members have with each other is a driving force in the Zoom chats. He became a participant in the center when he was 13, following the death of his mother. An emergency room technician at Southern Maine Health Care in Biddeford, he has been volunteering at the center for three years and is a facilitator for the 13-18 peer group.

“It had been a month since I’d seen them last,” he said. “So it was very nice getting us all back together.”

The conversation, he said, seemed normal given that everyone’s lives have changed because of the pandemic. “We’re all adapting to this change,” he said. “And I think that’s the key word. We are adapting to the situation.”

And for that, Healy is grateful. The month without the peer group sessions was difficult, she said. The pandemic didn’t help, as it reminded her of her daughter’s death from a deadly illness, and that she was on a ventilator. While she reached out to friends via Facetime, she said the connection she has to her peer group is essential.

“There is no one place in my life where anyone understands, except in that grief group with the facilitators and grief parents,” she said. “It is a place that exists for me.”

And, Heros said, that’s why the center set up the Zoom chats: “It’s a certain level of security there for families in this difficult time.”

Are there folks in your community going out of their way to help others during the virus outbreak? If so, please send details about their efforts to [email protected]

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