Bereavement program to help reach Hispanics opens

Jared Chartrand lights a candle in memory of a loved one as VITAS General Manager Laurie Fitz looks on.
Jared Chartrand lights a candle in memory of a loved one as VITAS General Manager Laurie Fitz looks on. Miami Herald Staff

When Children’s Bereavement Center was founded in 1999 by Dr. Mindy Cassel and Dr. Carol Berns, its only peer support group consisted of eight children from five families.

The center aims to provide children and families with a structure for dealing with the loss of loved ones. Sixteen years later, CBC operates in four locations and holds 94 group meetings every month. CBC estimates that the program reaches more than 1,200 people across Miami-Dade and Broward counties. To date, it is the only ongoing bereavement center that provides free peer group sessions to its participants.

“Watching the growth of the program has been challenging, and yet exciting and fulfilling to know that we can reach a broader range of grieving children and families,” said CBC Program and Training Director Kathy Kramer, 53, who has been a part of CBC since she began as a volunteer group facilitator about 10 years ago.

Twice a year, before the children begin their summer and winter breaks from school, CBC holds “candlelighting” events at each of its locations. Participants are encouraged to say a few words and light a candle in memory of a loved one they’ve lost. On Wednesday, CBC held its first candlelighting at Miami Christian School, the program’s newest expansion located just west of Sweetwater. The Miami Christian School location started holding group sessions last month. A group representative said the expansion is part of an effort to reach more of South Florida’s Hispanic community.

Most of those in attendance were representatives of CBC and its partner group, VITAS Healthcare, which underwrites many of the program’s expenses, including food, arts and crafts, and provides trained professionals to oversee the group sessions. Two families attended the CBC event — as opposed to the more than 100 people who attended the candlelighting at its Miami Shores location.

Peter Willig encouraged those in attendance to stick around.

“You can help build this into whatever it is you want it to be,” he said. “We want you to grow along with us.”

While working as a children and families therapist at Miami Children’s Hospital, Willig ran into his former second-grade teacher, Dr. Carol Berns. He has been involved with the program since and is now the chief operating officer of CBC. The organization has molded its peer-oriented model through the use of volunteer facilitators, most of whom also have suffered loss.

CBC does not handle the clinical aspect of dealing with depression and grief, but referrals to professionals is given if deemed necessary. For the children, the group sessions are primarily focused on keeping active with art, music, and discussion activities. CBC also provides support groups for adults under a separate division titled “Lift from Loss.”

“Because the model is not clinical and it does not prescribe that there is anything wrong with us, but instead that something has happened to us, people see it as a community or as a family-type support,” said Willig. “The groups are happy, playful places. We are open to discussions of death, but most of our program is based on kids hanging out with other kids and parents giving each other support. I won’t kid you and say that there aren’t sad stories, but the work itself is gratifying.”

VITAS Healthcare started partnering with CBC five years ago. Since then, CBC has been able to expand its reach at the Miami Shores and Broward locations — as well as the newest location in West Dade. VITAS Hospice provides palliative and end-of-life care for patients with terminal illnesses. Its partnership with CBC allows VITAS to provide a form of care for the families of patients after death.

Charles Lowry is the group facilitator for the new West Dade location. He became involved with CBC through his work as a chaplain for VITAS Hospice. His job requires him to visit with seriously ill patients and talk them through their final days. These patients, he says, often suffer with depression or become overwhelmed with the pressures of impending death.

“Every person I come into contact with is at a point of crisis and hurting and looking for answers,” said Lowry, 62. “My job is a lot of sitting and listening to people and encouraging them to share about their lives.”

Lowry brought a tub of homemade Butterfinger ice cream — a special family recipe — with him to the candlelighting. Lowry suffered the death of his own daughter 25 years ago when she was just 5. As a volunteer facilitator, he has used the group as a forum where he can talk about his own loss.

“There’s nobody giving advice or answers,” said Lowry. “It’s people coming together who have shared a common loss.”

To contact Children’s Bereavement Center, you may call them at 305-668-4902 or at their website,