Health First community resource offers an outlet for kids to mourn the loss of a loved one – and a chance to see they’re not alone.
As Mikey Puffer flipped through the green pages of his memory book, he explained he wrote it when he was 9 and couldn’t draw very well. His smile beams in his school portrait, pasted onto the first page. “If I could have one wish, it would be that my dad was still alive,” Mikey, 13, solemnly read aloud. “But at least he’s not suffering anymore.” It’s been five years since the Palm Bay boy lost his 43-year-old father, Mike, to lung cancer. His mother, Eva, was 37 when she became a widow on September 5, 2012.
Mikey made “My Memory Book About My Awesome Dad” during a visit to Health First’s Bright Star Center for Grieving Children and Families in Melbourne. A service of Hospice of Health First, it’s funded through the Health First Foundation, providing bereavement services to families who have lost a loved one. As the largest provider of philanthropic health care in Brevard County, the Health First Foundation, a not-for-profit organization, improves the health and well-being of our community by providing health care and related services to people who need it. People like Mikey and Eva, who continue to rely on Health First’s Bright Star.
“We’re doing our best to make it; we have our ups and downs,” said Eva, who works in the pathology lab for Health First’s Holmes Regional Medical Center. “Parents aren’t supposed to lose their children, and children are supposed to be older when they lose their parents. But that’s not the way it
Help During the Grief Process
Both Eva and Mikey have found Health First’s Bright Star essential in navigating the murkiness of grief. “I love everybody there,” Eva said. “I love the staff, the other parents. We’re all supportive of each other. The kids are great there.” Almost a year to the day Mike was diagnosed as terminal, his health plummeted. A smoker who had worked with various lawn chemicals over the years, he began struggling to breathe one day, sending Eva scrambling to call 911. At Health First’s Palm Bay Hospital came the diagnosis no one wants to hear.
“I remember the doctor walked in and said, ‘It’s time for hospice,’” Eva recalled recently, sitting in her family room, the walls covered with collages of her family – Mike, Mikey and her daughter, Kimberly, 19. “His oncologist… I remember him crying as he told Mike how long he had left.” Mike was admitted to Health First’s William Childs Hospice House in Palm Bay Hospital. “We weren’t leaving his side,” she said, admitting it took coaxing from a relative to even hop in the shower. She thought, “‘I’m afraid if I go in there, he’s going to leave.’ And I didn’t want him to be alone.”
It was during that time that Terry Musso entered the Puffers’ lives. The licensed clinical social worker visited Eva to tell her she was there to help provide comfort. “She sat with me, and she let me cry, and hugged me, and she was so wonderful,” Eva recalled. “She was so caring and kind; I really took to her right away. And I knew she was going to help Mikey.” Terry was in the room when Mikey said the last words he’d speak to his father: “Goodbye, Daddy.” He was not present when Mike passed away, two-and-a-half days after entering hospice. Eva, Mike’s mom and Mike’s best friend were by his side.
“It’s something that I don’t want to experience ever again,” Eva said of watching her husband pass away. She admits she couldn’t even bring herself to drive her car home. “I couldn’t function.” But as she began processing her loss, Eva knew bereavement help was a must.
“Mike and Mikey were very close. I think it was three weeks after Mike died, I had him at Bright Star,” she said. “The moment
I walked in the door, I was pleased.”
The Hurricane Room
The two continue to utilize the community resource to this day, which is free and open to the public, and has helped more than 2,800 children and 850 families since opening in 2000.
“They’ve kept us around because they know that we need the support,” Eva said of the group therapy and creative, positive play. “I just don’t know what I’d do without them.”
Terry insists that peer-based support groups are most beneficial for children, demonstrating in a comfortable environment that they are not alone in their pain. Camp Bright Star is held twice a year, providing a day’s worth of remembrance and fun. “Children who are grieving, they’re not broken,” Terry said. “They find friends here. They find comfort here.” But it’s more than mourning. It’s about letting kids be kids – through games, dress-up or taking a few minutes in the popular, cushioned “Hurricane Room,” where they can safely funnel frustrations.
Health First’s Bright Star is also about celebrating the happy times. “My funniest memory is ‘I got my eye on you,’” Mikey said of his dad, a grin spreading across his face. Eva helped explain: Mike had just gotten out of the shower, wearing nothing but a towel, when a motion-activated “Monsters, Inc.” character toy (Mike Wazowski) gave him a bit of a jolt. “When he went to go get his clothes out of the closet, out of the blue, in the package in the wrapping paper, Mike Wazowski said, ‘I got my eye on you’ – and SCARED my husband,” Eva smiled. “He’s like, ‘Oh God!’ “That’s the PG-rated version,” she said, as Mikey laughed.
It’s also proof that even in heartbreak, life stories can live on. Especially when shared with others.
Want to help?
For more information on Health First’s Bright Star’s bereavement services, camp or volunteer opportunities, call 321.434.7622 or visit HFhospice.org.