Where can Utah families turn for support when mom, dad or other caregiver dies?
When Candalyn Winder Mettmann’s first husband Isaac Winder died their daughter Adair was just 2 years old.
Given her age, she didn’t quite grasp that he was gravely ill but she understood something was amiss as her father lay in a coma in a hospital in Changchun, China, connected to wires and tubes. The small family had recently relocated so Candalyn could accepted a teaching job. Isaac was a stay-at-home dad.
Soon after the move, Isaac, 28, became fatally ill after contracting food poisoning and becoming dehydrated, his condition exacerbated by medication he has been taking for unrelated medical issues.
Adair was very verbal for her age but “she never asked me where her dad was. I think she just got it on some level,” Candalyn said.
The toddler’s grief manifested in “horrific separation anxiety,” her mother said.
“I tried to put her in preschool 10 months later, and for two weeks. I couldn’t leave without her sobbing for the entire time I was gone,” she said.
Candalyn moved into her parents’ basement so she could stay home with Adair, seek out a therapist to help her address her own grief and start an online master’s degree program so she could better support her family as a single mom. Candalyn, who has bachelor degree in early childhood and elementary education, sought other resources to help Adair.
At the time, Adair was too young for programs offered by the Utah nonprofit The Sharing Place, which offers grief support for children. But once she was able to enroll in its programs, “it immediately started getting better.”
Candalyn said she has a lot of support, privilege and advanced education and yet, she struggled to connect to resources to help her and her daughter.
“I just think about parents who don’t have the same level of privilege trying to navigate that,” she said.
On Thursday, the state of Utah took a significant step forward to assist children who have lost a parent or caregiver in announcing an initiative that builds on community partnerships to identify and support bereaved children.
The Utah Children’s Collaborative will be supported by a $1 million grant by New York Life Foundation, bringing its total investment for both the COVID and children’s collaboratives to $2.25 million.
The New York Life Foundation has invested more than $70 million to support bereaved children in the last 12 years, according to Heather Nesle, foundation president.
The collaborative will work with University of Utah’s Gardner Policy Institute to match birth records with death records of those who have children under 18 years old and then offer resources to families.
The Children’s Collaborative will also work with Granite School District, which starting in the 2023-24 school year, will add an entry to its school enrollment forms that allows families to voluntarily share that a caregiver or parent has passed away and to opt-in to being linked to resources.
Granite District teachers and administrators will also participate in the New York Life’s Grief-Sensitive Schools Initiative, which will help prepare them to help bereaved kids and families.
Once Utah children who have experienced the death a parent or other caregiver are identified and their remaining caregivers opt-in, the collaborative’s partner organizations will reach out to connect families with an array of supports that they can elect to seek such as Social Security Death and Survivor Benefits, funeral reimbursements or public assistance nutrition benefits.
Case managers will also inform families aware of other supports such as grief camps, local support groups, therapeutic services and mentoring.
John Bridgeland is co-founder and CEO of the Children’s Collaborative for Healing and Support, which initially focused on the 340,000 children nationwide who lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19, as part of the long-established COVID Collaborative. It is now expanding to support all grieving children, no matter the cause of death.
Bridgeland says Utah is ideal for launching the pilot program because of already existing support services, its demonstrated capacity to collaborate and use data for sound decision-making.
“While the country has moved on from the pandemic, there is an urgent need to address the crisis of children left behind. Supporting these children in the years ahead is a moral imperative. The Children’s Collaborative seeks to build sustainable, scalable systems to help these children navigate their new reality,” said Bridgeland in a statement.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox noted that 1 in 15 Utah children will experience the death of a parent before they reach 18 years old.
“We can’t let these families suffer alone. We have the resources already available and we need to use them. Not only do children suffer the emotional pain of losing a caregiver, they often experience trauma and when not provided support, they have long-term consequences like low self-esteem, depression and poor performance in school,” Cox said.
He added, “We talk a lot in this state about being trauma informed. We talk about adverse childhood experiences and the loss of a caregiver is at the very top of that.”
Cox said the Children’s Collaborative recognizes Utah’s unique qualities that “makes us the right place to pilot this program ... I’m very excited. I’m very hopeful. I believe that we can do this here in Utah, and then we can get 49 other states to follow our lead.”
Fast forward to 2023 and Candalyn Winder Mettmann is remarried and has earned her master’s degree in education leadership. She and her husband, Jason Mettmann, have a 3-year-old son, Ellington.
Candalyn said she believes she and Adair are in a good place but occasionally struggle in their “season of grief” around the anniversary of Isaac Winder’s death in 2014.
But Candalyn said she is hopeful about the new initiative announced Thursday.
“Every grieving child deserves to have what my daughter has, long-term financial stability, community support and professionals who understand them. They deserve to have loved ones with the time and resources to show up. They deserve a safe place to land. They deserve a chance to rebuild a beautiful life after their loss,” she said.
Jason Mettmann and Adair share a somewhat similar history. Each lost their father during childhood, she at age 2 and he at age 16.
Mettmann’s father died of cancer just as he was becoming a young man and he looked to his father for guidance.
“The thing that I miss most as I get older is, I want to ask him how to be a better dad,” he said.
“I hope that I make her grandpa and their first daddy proud, right? We get to be a part of his (Isaac’s) family as well. His siblings have taken me in as one of their brothers and we all are still a family.”