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Growing up grieving

January 18, 2019

On the back of Riley DiPillo’s bedroom door is a dog-eared sheet of paper.

Riley’s Christmas Morning Instructions – starting with “get up at 5:30 am” – have been there ever since his big sister wrote them, when she was seven and he was four. They’ve been there for all the years Riley has been missing her.

On July 1, 2014, fifteen-year-old Laura DiPillo – a luminous girl whose life was shadowed by depression – died by suicide. Riley can still feel his sister’s hug.

“Laura’s hugs said more than words ever could,” he remembers.

Epidemic of loss

More and more children are grieving a loved one lost to suicide. Every 14 hours, someone in Massachusetts dies by suicide.

Experts estimate that each loss leaves between six and 80 other people who feel bereaved. And, because suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people between 15 and 24, a generation of brothers, sisters, cousins, friends, and classmates are navigating traumatic grief during critical developmental years.

Thanks to a $100,000 Grief Reach grant from the New York Life Foundation, the Family Advocacy Center at Baystate Children’s Hospital – the only agency in the region that focuses on traumatic grief – is launching a program designed to help children between 3 and 17 grieve the suicides of people close to them. The Grief Reach grant is designed to help providers overcome barriers in bringing services to youth not served by existing programs.

“Pediatricians, emergency department personnel, and health care professionals throughout Baystate refer children to us,” says Jessica Wozniak, PsyD, clinical research and development manager at the Family Advocacy Center, noting that calls for help through the new suicide bereavement program have already started to come in. “The state Department of Children and Families (DCF) also reaches out to us to help family members tell children about the loss of a loved one and help them grieve. We regularly work with schools, to support students and staff, when a loss has been experienced.”

Personalized therapy

“New York Life Foundation’s support will allow us to offer breadth and depth not achievable through programs traditionally funded through health insurance reimbursement,” says Wozniak, explaining that each child will receive a comprehensive needs assessment followed by personalized, evidence-based therapy – including individual and group therapy and more.

Remembrance services, and other special activities designed to help kids make meaning of sudden loss, are also planned.

“Isolation is a huge factor for children processing the suicide of someone important to them,” says Wozniak. “Stigma is a big hurdle. And post-traumatic stress symptoms get in the way of grieving. Children often experience self-blame as well. Was it my fault? Should I have noticed something?

Power of community

Riley DiPillo is now older than his big sister will ever be. Sometimes he feels older than he is. With support from family, friends, and community, he’s grown up a lot over the past four years.

"My parents were very open and always there for me, even while they were going through their own grief,” says Riley. “I’ve also met a lot of people who have experience with loss at a summer camp for grieving boys that I attend. Not feeling alone is incredibly important.”

Over the past three years, thanks to hundreds of people who have expressed their love for the DiPillo family through philanthropy, Riley has become the top fundraiser for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s annual Out of the Darkness Walk.

“Having a community of people supporting me – including peers that I can talk to – has really helped in my grief journey,” he say.

Learn more about how you can support initiatives like this through Baystate Health Foundation.