At first glance, the Wattons are a typical family of three. But under the surface, they’re grappling with pain that few can understand.
Kim and Tyler Watton’s son Jacob was born with a congenital heart defect and passed away at just five weeks old. But this devastating loss in April 2016 wasn’t their first. They had earlier experienced a second-trimester miscarriage with their first son, Daniel, in 2012.
After their miscarriage, the Wattons attended traditional support groups. Later, when Jacob passed away, they realized they needed to find help not only for themselves but their 4-year-old daughter Maddie as well.
They were inspired to start the Bereaved Families Playgroup after spending a day with another grieving family at a local park. They found unexpected comfort in the experience.
“People who have lost a child share an instant connection and unique bond,” Kim says. “It is a heartache like no other and can only be understood by those who have personally experienced it.”
After distributing flyers in their community, the Wattons began receiving emails from other bereaved parents. Together, the families chose a location, date and time to meet.
“It ended up being a perfect mix of support and fun,” Kim says. “The kids who were old enough to understand knew that the other children there had a brother or sister who lives in heaven, too. We think it is so important for them to know they aren’t alone in this situation among other kids their age.”
The Wattons hope to continue scheduling casual monthly play dates for bereaved families, primarily in the North Hills area.
That playgroup is just one resource for Pittsburgh families struggling with grief. These six other organizations and programs can also provide comfort and help:
A Caring Place: The Highmark Caring Place offers group sessions that bring together up to 20 families. After open social time and a communal meal with the entire group, teens and younger children connect with peers their age. They can express their feelings in a safe environment through developmental- and age-appropriate activities like creating memory boxes or by body drawings to show where they physically experience their pain.
“It’s a place to be together, to understand each other, to listen, to talk and ultimately to just know they’re not alone,” says manager Andrea Lurier. “While no one can take away anyone else’s grief, or walk their journeys for them, no one needs to walk the road of grief alone.”
Lost & Found: Three Rivers Mothers Milk Bank holds a support group called Lost & Found for those who have experienced miscarriage, stillbirth or infant death. The group meets the fourth Thursday of every month from 7-8 p.m. Some women who have lost infants may find comfort in donating their breast milk, while others want to discontinue lactation immediately. The Milk Bank offers resources to help women decide what is best for them. A garden memory wall at the milk bank honors the babies whose milk was donated.
Compassionate Friends: The Compassionate Friends (TCF) provides support for people who have lost children, grandchildren or siblings. Meetings are typically held on the last Sunday of every month. The Pittsburgh chapter is led by Lillian L. Meyers, a psychologist, grief educator and author of “I’m Sorry for Your Loss: Hope and Guidance in Managing Your Grief,” who lost her son more than 30 years ago. Each year, TCF hosts a memorial butterfly release.
Support camps: Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh has support programs in place for grieving families, including Camp Wakchazi, a sibling bereavement camp of the Supportive Care Program, which provides care to children with life-threatening illness and their families.
Other grief support camps include Good Samaritan Hospice’s Camp Erin Pittsburgh and Camp Healing Hearts, through Family Hospice and Palliative Care, which also offers free counseling and support in individual and group settings.
COPING WITH LOSS
In addition to providing an outlet for bereaved parents and siblings, Kim and Tyler Watton offer the following advice to those who want to help friends or family coping with loss:
- The greatest gift a grieving parent can receive is to have their child honored and remembered. Mention their child by name and let them know you think of them often. Acknowledge important dates like their birthday and the anniversary of their death every year – there is no timeline for grief. “Even a simple, ‘I’m thinking of you…’ text goes a long way.”
- Do not try to rationalize their loss by offering platitudes like “everything happens for a reason” or “God needed another angel.” These comments, though well-intentioned, can be very hurtful.
- Choose your words about your healthy children carefully and recognize that it may be difficult for someone coping with loss to talk with you about your challenges and joys – particularly if your living child is around the same age as the child they lost.
- Know that by offering a shoulder to cry on or a listening ear, you’re helping them on a lifelong journey to healing.