PHILADELPHIA—Philadelphia HEALs (Healing and Empowerment After Loss), the Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s Bereavement Care Program is now extending their services to include bereavement counseling to children and adolescents (ages 4-21) who are grieving the loss of a loved one or caregiver to a fatal overdose. This puts Philadelphia HEALs at the forefront of acknowledging the unique and significant impact that sudden loss can have on youth.

“Grief counseling is important for children and adolescents because it helps them to process complex emotions such as confusion, fear, sadness, and anger,” says Dr. Andrew Best, Jr. DPA, MPA, MSS, LSW, Director of the Health Department’s Substance Use Prevention and Harm Reduction division. “This service creates a safe environment where their feelings are validated, and they can honor the loss of
their loved ones. This counseling is also important because it provides the family members and caregivers of children who are grieving with much needed support especially if they are grieving as well.”

To kick off the introduction of this new support service, PhillyHEALs hosted a workshop for caregivers of youth who have experienced sudden or traumatic loss due to fatal overdose on July 12. The workshop explored the effects of grief and loss on childhood development, focusing on emotional, behavioral, and cognitive functioning. With the guidance of PhillyHEALs’ Child and Adolescent Counselor, Suzanne McNamara, attendees learned how children and adolescents express their thoughts and feelings through their behavior and discussed ways to support their ability to recover.

Losing a close adult during childhood and adolescence can be particularly devastating and life changing. Healthy adult connection and attachment are vital to development, and a loss during this time often results in unique risk factors for young people. Children and teens may struggle both in the initial grieving process and with possible long-term impacts to cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functioning. In addition, the social stigma around drug use can carry feelings of being disenfranchised and a traumatic grief with significant mental health  challenges. Furthermore, if the deceased was a primary caregiver, a youth may likely have to deal with the family court and child welfare systems which may increase their risk for mental health difficulties like depression and anxiety. According to Laura Vargas, the Health Department’s Bereavement Program Manager, “The workshop allowed individuals to not only see that it is—in fact—possible to talk to children about difficult things, such as a loss due to substance use, but to also recognize that through opening up those conversations, they are opening up hope.”

PhillyHEALs’ trauma-informed, grief specific services are aimed toward providing this critical support to caregivers and children as soon as possible after a loss to
promote their ability to adapt to the changes brought on by the loss through
engagement in healthy emotional expression and teaching them positive coping,
stress management, and resiliency skills.

PhillyHEALs is the only program in the nation that offers a wide range of free and individualized support services for survivors of loss due to substance use. In that capacity, since 2019, they have served over 3,000 city residents through grief counseling, peer support groups, advocacy work, community events, and more. The program continues to offer grief counseling, peer support groups, psychoeducational workshops and more, for loss due to substance use. All services are free and mostly virtual.

While this workshop has passed, individuals interested in referring a child for services can do so here. To stay informed about upcoming workshops and additional programming for youth and adults, please contact Laura Vargas at

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