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Highmark Caring Place expands grief support groups to 65 Pennsylvania schools

PITTSBURGH (June 24, 2016) —Since launching a pilot program with four schools during the 2013-2014 academic year, the Highmark Caring Place, A Center for Grieving Children, Adolescents and Their Families, has partnered with 65 schools in Pennsylvania to make school-based grief support groups available to children who are grieving the death of someone close to them. As a result, nearly 500 students have attended the school-based groups and thousands more students have received instruction and information about how they can support friends and classmates who are grieving.

By partnering with schools to make peer-support services available to elementary, middle and high school students, the Caring Place is filling a gap in grief services available within schools and making those services accessible to children and teens unable to travel to its facilities. In the participating schools, the Caring Place trains qualified facilitators, including guidance counselors and teachers, to lead grief support groups – a proven way of helping children to cope.

"Research shows that two-thirds of our school teachers have a child in their classroom who has lost a parent, guardian, sibling or close friend in the past year, but fewer than half of those teachers feel they know how to support a grieving student. Very few schools have grief support programs in place, which makes the situation even more challenging," explained Terese Vorsheck, director of the Highmark Caring Place. "Through the grief support groups we are establishing in schools, children learn that they're not alone, they have the support of their peers and school staff, and they can learn how to cope in healthy ways."

Following a death, children can experience a range of grief-associated emotions, including isolation, panic, anger, fear and sadness. According to a study by the American Federation of Teachers and the New York Life Foundation, classroom teachers reported that students who have lost a parent or guardian typically:

  • Have difficulty concentrating in class (observed by 87 percent of teachers).
  • Withdraw/disengage and have lower class participation (observed by 82 percent of teachers).
  • Experience higher levels of absenteeism (observed by 72 percent of teachers).
  • Exhibit a decrease in quality of work (observed by 68 percent of teachers).
  • Are less reliable at turning in assignments (observed by 66 percent of teachers).

The grief support groups are designed as a training model through which Caring Place staff facilitate the groups while instructing designated school personnel on how to run the program so that they can facilitate future groups in the school as the need arises.

"Through the grief groups in school, students receive extra help and support while coping with their loss. They also receive encouragement from their peers who have all experienced a loss and can understand what each other are going through," said Sue Herberg and Amber Warren, school counselors at Meadville Area Middle School. "Our groups allow students to work as a team, share their stories, discuss their feelings and memories and develop coping strategies. In addition, we are reaching all of our students by raising awareness through assemblies, lessons and announcements."

Meadville Area Middle School program participant Abby Miller added, "The grief group helped me by showing me it's OK to not be OK and that there are people out there that care and that you can express your feelings to. I'm forever thankful for that."

The Highmark Caring Place plans to continue expanding its school-based programs throughout central and western Pennsylvania.

About the Highmark Caring Place

The mission of the Highmark Caring Place, A Center for Grieving Children, Adolescents and Their Families, is to raise awareness of the needs of grieving children, provide programs to address those needs and empower the community to support children who have experienced the death of a loved one. Since its inception in 1996, the Caring Place has served more than 90,000 family and community members. Financial support from Highmark Inc. allows the Caring Place, with facilities in Lemoyne, Erie, Pittsburgh and Warrendale, Pa., to offer its programs at no cost to the families and the community. For more information, visit


David Misner
Highmark Health