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When the world falls apart, Hands Holding Hearts is there


Sometimes our worst nightmares are realized. Sometimes we don’t know how we’ll go on.
When a child is faced with the death of a parent, sibling or someone else dear in their life, not only is the pain unimaginable, the questions seemingly endless and the fear far-reaching, the need for support is crucial.
Perhaps no one understands that quite as well as Amy Keiper-Shaw, co-founder of Hands Holding Hearts. The Newtown-based nonprofit offers an array of grief-counseling services, support groups, workshops and a highly regarded bereavement camp for children from age 6 to 12.
As a clinical social worker, Keiper-Shaw worked in hospice care and saw first-hand the suffering of children who lost a loved one and the stark lack of services for them.
She also had personal experience.
“My cousin and his wife lost a baby and not only were they grieving, so were their other two children,” said Keiper-Shaw. “I couldn’t find anything nearby for them. There was nothing in Bucks County.”
“That bothered me,” said the thanatologist (someone trained in the science and study of death and dying) and so, with the help of Kim Rabago, a group of dedicated volunteers, and sheer determination, Keiper-Shaw began her own grief-support program, which became the aptly named Hands Holding Hearts. That was in 2013.
Today, one in 12 children in Pennsylvania will experience the loss of someone significant in their life by the time they graduate high school, Keiper-Shaw said.
And her small yet robust volunteer-driven nonprofit fills a vital need for Bucks County families trying to navigate some of the single most challenging times of their lives.
“We, as a society, are terrible about talking about death,” said Keiper-Shaw. “There’s little time given to take off from work. We displace our grief by stifling it. The message is to move forward.”
Hands Holding Hearts, however, does not see death or grief through that lens.
“We have a different approach,” Keiper-Shaw explained. “Grief takes as long as it takes. Grief isn’t done in stages; it’s not tasks you have to accomplish.
“Our goal is to help model for kids what grief looks like and to let them know they are not alone.”
To that end, she and the counselors at HHH practice this: “Be honest with kids, normalize and validate what they’re feeling. Let the child lead. Say the word death, don’t say (their loved one) is sleeping, or they passed away.”
Megan Tondi’s husband died in 2022, leaving their children, Violet, now 7, and Vincent, now 6, with much sorrow, confusion and questions.
“Kids absorb a lot,” said Tondi.
Both attended Hands Holding Hearts’ bereavement camp this summer.
“It was so beneficial to her,” the 38-year-old mother said of Violet’s first camp experience last year. “She was just starting kindergarten and all the kids were bringing their dads. The camp helped her see she wasn’t the only child without a dad. When she came home, she said, ‘Wow, Mommy I’m not the only one.’”
For Keiper-Shaw and all who work with HHH, it’s that single discovery that’s most valuable to children.
“Kids who lost a parent feel different; kids don’t want to feel different,” she said. “Building a sense of community for them is the biggest part of our camp.”

This year, the Penndel mother thought Vincent should go, too.
“He was nervous. He didn’t know much about emotions,” said Tondi.
But he learned, through games and activities, to put a name to his feelings, a first step toward healing for many children.
“We meet children where they are,” said Cheryl Schram, a licensed social worker with the Council Rock School District and a counselor with HHH. “We help them recognize and understand their emotions. From there, they can begin to process them.”
Some children, explained Schram, think “if I didn’t do x, y or z, my mommy wouldn’t have died.”
“We can help normalize their thinking patterns…learn to grieve the loss but not blame themselves or feel responsible in any way,” she said.
By talking about their feelings, the therapist explained, children as young as five and six can understand when they have a stomachache, they may be feeling sad. They can recognize feelings of anxiety.
Techniques, sometimes as simple as taking a deep breath, can help ease their stress. Writing in a notebook, having a “comfort object” such as Mom or Dad’s shirt, to hold “can bring a sense of peace,” said Schram.
A “butterfly hug,” where a child embraces themselves can be “grounding,” too.
“The goal is to get the emotion out, name it, process it and learn to cope in a healthy way, a way that incorporates the love for the person who died and finds meaning in their life,” Schram said.
Kim Rabago, a licensed social worker, brought her own story of suffering to the co-founding of Hands Holding Hearts. Born with a heart condition, she was often hospitalized as a child.
“I knew what it was like to have a lot of loss,” she said. “I met kids in the hospital who didn’t survive. For me, grief and showing compassion and empathy is a part of life.”
Joining Keiper-Shaw seemed like a perfect fit, said the Perkasie woman, who noted the camp had its biggest year this summer, with 14 children.
“We try to help them understand they really are not different than anyone else,” Rabago said. “Yes, they will always miss that person, but they are supported and cared for.”
Rabago serves as HHH’s board president. She credits the nonprofit’s growing support to “amazing volunteers” and “Amy, the real heart of this organization.”
The demand for the unique services that Hands Holding Hearts provides is only increasing across Bucks County, said Schram, who sees that in her counseling work in the Council Rock School District.
“It’s amazing to have such a wonderful organization,” she said, “we’re very fortunate.” But, she added, “It could use more money, there’s such a need.”
Hands Holding Hearts is headquartered at 118 N. State St. in Newtown. It can be reached at 445-444-5374.
This article has been supported by a grant from Foundations Community Partnership.

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