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Finding Hope in Grief: Riley Grief Services

“We offer grief support,” Elizabeth Boring, MSW, LSW, explains of Riley Grief Services at Riley Children’s Health. “When you think of an illness, there’s something malfunctioning and we need to treat it. Grief is the body’s natural response to loss. We don’t need to treat that, we need to support it.”

Boring is the Program Manager for Riley Grief Services, which provides compassionate and individualized grief support to families who have experienced loss within Riley Children’s Health. It is Indiana’s only comprehensive pediatric hospital-based bereavement program.

The philanthropic group Women for Riley awarded the first grant that launched the program, initially called Hope in Healing, in 2009. That effort was spearheaded by Riley Neonatologist Jayme Allen, M.D. Over the past 14 years, the Grief Services team has been intentional about listening to grieving families and adapting to what they need. They offer individual grief support, support groups and special events, in person and virtually, as well as art and music therapy.

Thanks to a Riley Grateful Family and their fundraising through Peyton’s Promise Inc., Riley offers the first mobile app in the nation for families grieving the loss of a child. Features of the Riley Grief Guide include journaling prompts and a “memory chest” where users can save videos, photos, and notes about their loved one. “One of the family’s fears is that they will forget the small details,” Boring explains. “This can provide that reassurance that when they feel further from their child, they can go into that chest and find that memory.”

This September, families will participate in the first ever Riley Grief Retreat. As with all services provided by Riley Grief Services, donor support makes it possible for families to attend the weekend free of cost.

In honor of Grief Awareness Day on August 30, we asked Boring for her insight about ways we can all offer support to someone who is grieving.

What is something you wish more people understood about grief and the grieving process?

The number one thing people misunderstand is that grief is truly a lifelong journey. What someone grieves today may not be what they grieve in five years. It’s a lifelong dance of learning how to adapt in the current space and knowing that it will change.

Sadness is not the dominant emotion. The dominant emotion is longing – that the person you lost was here, that you were with them, to go back in time and change something.

The way you can support longing is to have a presence – to sit with them, acknowledge the person they lost, share stories or ask questions. That is a balm to longing – to feel that other people are creating space for your loved one.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to support a friend who is grieving, but isn’t sure what to do?

You can acknowledge that. Tell them, “I’m not sure what to say, I just want to be there for you.” It’s a beautiful place to start. You don’t have to know all the answers. You just have to be willing to be there and be present with them.

Avoid two things – being dismissive and giving advice. Instead, ask, “Is there anything in this moment you might find comforting?”

Continue to check in with them in a way that doesn’t put pressure, like sending “thinking of you” texts. Make a note on your calendar of significant days like their loved one’s birthday. Send a message when you think of their loved one. One of their fears is that you will forget their person, which is isolating. Mentioning that person’s name is like music to their soul.