MISS Foundation: Helping Families Deal with Tragic Losses
A young mother sits in a hospital, desperately holding onto the lifeless body of her beautiful little boy who has just drowned in the pool. As the doctor disconnects him from life support, his father sits with his head in his knees, sobbing uncontrollably. Joanne Cacciatore sits quietly nearby, her eyes wet with tears.
A pastor from the young family’s church enters, Bible in hand. Cacciatore rises to greet him, asking to speak with him outside for a moment. After thanking him for coming to bear witness to the parents’ suffering, she declares that her advice, born of years of experience working with the MISS Foundation, which she founded, is to put down the Bible and go in and “just be with them.” Agitated, he replies he is there to bring in God’s presence. Ignoring her suggestion, he enters the room and begins to read verses from the book, oblivious how to comfort the two desolate family members. Hopelessly, they weep in despair as they listen. Less than two months later they leave the church, angry and confused about God’s will.
It is stories such as this that inspired the MISS Foundation. The volunteer-based organization was founded 17 years ago by Cacciatore, in the wake of the tragedy of losing her infant daughter Cheyenne, to help others navigate the process of grieving for a child who died prematurely. Cacciatore, now a board member at MISS Foundation, may feel those parents did not get the help they needed, but she has endless stories of how her work at MISS has truly made all the difference to a suffering family.
Try another young family, this time with a baby boy who died of pneumonia. Their pastor had called Cacciatore for guidance, openly declaring he needed help and was scared. He felt he had no answers. He wound up meeting with Cacciatore for three hours to learn how to be with the family. And this time, the story was ever so different. The pastor gave a moving eulogy for the infant, and his parents stayed with the church for years. The family will never forget the pastor’s open-hearted compassion during that difficult time.
“People need help when their world collapses following the death of their child. Support from society eventually drops off after the child dies. We continue that support when the families need help the most,” Kelli Montgomery, executive director at MISS Foundation, said, recognizing that traditionally, little assistance or guidance is offered by the community and its institutions after a child’s death.
The MISS Foundation serves families who are dealing with one of life’s ultimate darkest hours: the death of a child. Its volunteers, mostly all parents who have experienced a similar loss, have provided crisis support and ongoing aid to thousands of families across the globe through forums, counseling and support groups. This volunteer work helps them heal inside and, at the same time, honor their child’s passing.
“We are advocates for bereaved parents – in research and awareness to prevent child death; in society, to educate people on the grieving process and how to help families after a child has died; and in the professional world, to educate medical and mental health care providers on what parents experiencing the death of a child need from them,” Montgomery explained.
Like most of the volunteers, Montgomery lost her child several years ago. Not finding the right support from her community, she turned to the volunteers at MISS, who provided the guiding light she needed in exactly the right way. Now it is her mission to carry that light to others.
Approximately 120,000 children die every year from birth to adult child. Michele Newton endured the horror of losing one of her three children to a skateboarding accident at age 15. Out of heartbreak came a determination to help others. Two years after the accident, she began to volunteer to help others deal with their grief.
“This is my way to continue to mother my son. My wish is to provide hope to those who grieve the ones they love,” she declared.
Montgomery knows the work is hard – often heartbreaking – but someone has to do it. Grief is a natural yet painful experience that we all must confront someday. Grieving individuals need not just support but compassion and companionship. They need our love in their terrible time of trial, and we need to know how to comfort them best.
“Our tragic success is that we walk with them through the darkness of grief and help them to find life again after the death of a child. Nothing can compare to that,” Montgomery said. “We deal with the single most important question facing a bereaved parent: My child has died; what do I do now? And to be able to answer that, which is different for every person, we put our ‘response team’ to work within moments of impact to get communication going with the families. While it is a process, our unique position is we are there when it happens.”
Aimed at anyone and everyone affected by the loss, the foundation helps parents, siblings, grandparents, friends and others at the micro and macro level. “No one else does what the MISS Foundation does,” Montgomery explained.
Those experiencing a devastating bereavement follow in the footsteps of those who suffered the loss of a child and now give back. MISS Foundation likes to think of it as leading by example. MISS’s staff, mentors, facilitators, trained counselors and leadership, as grieving parents themselves, have been there and struggled through the loss as best they can.
Since its inception in 1996, MISS’s Kindness Project, the nonprofit’s first program, has offered a means for families to honor the child who passed away and know that in some small way, his or her memory lives on. Bereaved individuals perform anonymous random acts of kindness, leaving behind a card to acknowledge the act and the child it commemorates. Through these more than 1 million cards thus far distributed, families have discovered an outlet for their grief and know their loved one’s death still matters.
Steve Larsen, now a MISS board member, is still grieving over the loss of his son Eric 20 years ago. He knows in his heart there is no way to deal with it. “That there is no one way, no ‘right way,’ for dealing with the greatest tragedy and most unfair blow life can ever deliver to an individual. Working with MISS gives me hope that someday I’ll be able to make sense of this horrible thing that happened to me,” the father shared.
He is not alone. And no one should be, especially as they grieve. For more information about the foundation, to receive help or make a donation, visit www.missfoundation.org.