griefcamp

Two campers share a hug at Roberta’s House. (Photos Courtesy Roberta’s House/Shantivia Brown)

Annette March-Grier is no stranger to death and grief. “I was born into and grew up around the funeral industry,” the now-55-year-old said.

March-Grier’s parents were founders of March Funeral Homes, one of the premier mortuary companies among Blacks in Baltimore.

As a young woman, March-Grier fled the business of death and spent years as a registered nurse. But after several years at Johns Hopkins, the prodigal daughter returned to the family business and used her experience as a healer to make a mark.

“Interestingly enough, I saw grief from a new perspective,” she said. “I saw how untreated grief led to poor health, substance abuse, domestic abuse and other forms of violence, and I saw there needed to be much more education and understanding about grief and loss in our community.”

After obtaining training and education in grief counseling, March-Grier began running an adult bereavement support group over the next 30 years.

“I discovered in urban communities, families are dealing with multiple types of losses,” she said.

Inner-city communities such as Baltimore are often plagued by violence, high unemployment and incarceration rates, foreclosures and homelessness, poor health and high rates of illness.

“We provide support for families to understand their grief and adjust to the losses in their lives and learn coping skills that lead to productive lives and healthy outcomes,” she said.

But those services were being offered in a veritable vacuum, in which even churches—who were also conducting many funeral services in Baltimore—seemed to lack the necessary tools, including trained staff, to cater to the overwhelming need for grief counseling.

“Many of the participants in the group support sessions said they would get very angry with their pastor or church members because they felt they were not understood,” March-Grier said. “They would get all the Scriptures and clichés about being strong and having a strong faith and ‘you’ll see your loved one again’…. But those clichés could be very hurtful and harmful to people when they are going through their hard times.”

The paucity of grief counseling services was particularly acute for children, March-Grier found. But that’s par for the course, said Derrick Gordon, assistant professor of psychiatry, Yale School of Medicine.

“In urban communities there aren’t a lot of resources to help these (grieving) young people,” Gordon said. And, even when there are services available, “there aren’t support staff who understand, look like or have a cultural connection to the people they are meant to serve.

“There isn’t a silver bullet when it comes to dealing with these situations,” the Yale professor added. “But a targeted response that meets those kids where they are to shepherd them through the process of healing is necessary.”

In 2006, the personal loss of her mother, Julia Roberta March, set March-Grier on the path to providing that targeted response. She established Roberta’s House—named after her mother—which primarily provides psychological first aid to children, ages 5-17, who have experienced traumatic loss.

The service is a needed one in Baltimore where many children in the Black community experience loss—particularly to violence—every day. Already, the city has experienced more than 200 homicides this year, with 19 in August alone.

Every year, Roberta’s House facilitates mourning, providing mental health support and training to about 800 children, families and practitioners through various programs and activities, according to a brochure.

In addition to 10-week programs at the center, Roberta’s House conducts 10-week peer support programs in Baltimore City Schools and bereavement counseling workshops for local churches, social workers, schools, and universities. And in July 2014, Roberta’s House began a partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and the Baltimore City Police Department to implement a death notification pilot project. The organization provides relevant training to homicide detectives and case managers who can work together to conduct death notifications and help connect families with grief support and counseling.

From Aug. 9-11, Roberta’s House hosted its sixth Camp Erin, a summer camp for grieving and recovering children, in partnership with The Moyer Foundation. Fifty Baltimore-area children were taken to the NorthBay Adventure Camp in Cecil County, Md., where they engaged in activities meant to help them mourn, including connecting with other children who have experienced loss, and, also, to have fun.

“To get them out of the environment of their home and community, which can create more stress, fear and trauma, and take them out into nature facilitates the opening of the spirit and mind to explore their grief and see their situation from a broader world view,” March-Grier said about the camp. “To be around other children who are grieving gives them a safe place to express their feelings and to make friends and gives them a sense of hope that they can heal and grow from this experience.”