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This Holiday Season, Don't Forget Families Mourning a Loss

December 21, 2017

Nylife_foundation_bereavementDecember is the "season of giving" — a time when we're all made aware of the many ways we can give back to those less fortunate. On streets and in stores, on TV, and through our social networks, causes and organizations doing good work compete for our attention and year-end donations. But one group in need of support at this time of year often remains invisible: those who are grieving the loss of a loved one. It's time that philanthropy paid more attention.

The holidays are a difficult time of year for grieving children and families. For most, it is a season characterized by family traditions and poignant memories — memories that can trigger powerful emotions when someone significant is missing from the festivities, even when his or her loss is no longer fresh. In fact, a new nationwide survey conducted by the New York Life Foundation demonstrates the profound, enduring nature of loss. According to the survey, for those who lost a parent as a child, the pain was still raw years — and sometimes even decades — later, with 77 percent of respondents saying they would always feel like a part of them was missing and 78 percent saying they still thought about the departed parent every day. 

The survey also revealed a troubling "grief gap" — a disconnect between the length of time that grievers took to move forward after a loss and the time during which they received support. On average, those who lost a parent growing up said it took them six or more years to move forward, with a full 30 percent admitting that they'd never come to terms with their loss. Yet most reported that support from family and friends tapered off within the first three months after a loss, 21 percent reporting that support tapered off within a month of a loss, and 20 percent saying support from others tapered off after just a week.

The survey results send a clear message: grieving children and families need greater sustained support from their families, friends, and communities.

Why Grief Support Matters

Recognizing the urgent need to deliver more and better bereavement support, the New York Life Foundation has been a dedicated advocate and funder of grieving children and their families since 2008, committing more than$35 million to a diverse range of individuals and nonprofits, including bereavement camps, children's support groups, veterans' groups, and researchers.

As we've engaged with and invested in the issue, our partners have deepened our understanding of just how critical ongoing grief intervention is in helping children and families cope with loss. Sadly, in our death-averse society, grief too often remains in the shadows — with the result that too many grieving children feel they are alone.

This is a serious problem. When left unattended, grief can have devastating, far-reaching impacts on a child's growth and development, affecting his or her school performance, mental health, and social and emotional growth.

It's our conviction that bereavement support remains an underfunded area of philanthropy. Due to the multifaceted nature of the issue, however, there is significant opportunity for those who fund related disciplines — including children's programming, education, and mental health — to think creatively about how to integrate grief education and support into their existing programs and services.

Reaching Out This Holiday Season — and Beyond

This holiday season, we all can do more to remember the grieving families in our midst. In the New York Life Foundation's most recent survey, 74 percent of those who had lost a parent growing up said they wished people displayed greater sensitivity toward bereaved individuals around the holidays.

At the same time, the survey demonstrated that it's easier than you might think to express one's support for those who have suffered a loss. When asked to share the kinds of meaningful things that family and friends had done to help them after their loss, grievers cited simple gestures like remembering important dates (birthdays, death anniversaries), sharing stories about the deceased, and spending quality time with them over the holidays. 

In order to help the public better understand how to support bereaved children, the New York Life Foundation recently launched a new online resource that offers research, tip sheets, and expert guidance designed to inform bereavement conversations and outreach. Still, as our  partners have told us repeatedly, what matters most is that you do or say something. Remaining silent in the face of a child's grief speaks volumes.

There is good news in all this: grief conversations are on the rise, with 70 percent of Americans in our latest survey saying they believe people today are more open about issues of death and dying than they were five to ten years ago.

It's our hope that the philanthropic community will capitalize on this trend by using the many tools at its disposal to encourage — and fund — new grief support proposals across a range of different funding areas. Grief affects everyone at some point and has meaningful touch-points with projects, initiatives, and partnerships that many of us already support.

By taking steps both large and small to elevate our support for this critical issue and keep it top of mind in our grantmaking, we can all play a role in ensuring that kids don't grieve alone — now, during the holidays, or the rest of the year.

Heather_nesle_for_PhilanTopicHeather Nesle is president of the New York Life Foundation, a charitable foundation created by New York Life Insurance Company, and vice president of New York Life's corporate responsibility department. The foundation devotes the majority of its funding annually to programs that help children in the areas of educational enhancement and childhood bereavement. For more information about how to support grieving children, visit the foundation's online resource page or check out the results of its most recent bereavement survey.

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