Making a Difference: Center Helps Children Through the Grieving Process

After losing her own 10-year-old son in an accident, a mother devotes herself to helping families deal with the loss of a loved one.

November 1, 2003

When Eleanor Morsbach’s 10-year-old son, Peter, died in an accident while playing in 1999, there were moments when she couldn’t breathe, sleep, or get out of bed without wondering how she would survive the loss of her child.

“I have a living daughter who’s 16 now, and I remember that when my husband and I went to a grief counselor, the first thing the counselor told us was, ‘How you manage and cope with this will determine how your daughter responds later on to difficult situations in life,’” says Morsbach, a sales associate with Prudential Fox & Roach Realtors in Wayne, Pa.

Morsbach decided that the best way to celebrate and honor her son’s life was to live her own to the fullest, and to help others through the grief and healing process that she knew all too well.

With a group of friends, the Morsbachs worked to establish Peter’s Place, A Center for Grieving Children in Berwyn, Pa., just outside Philadelphia. The center, which offers peer support and group counseling to grieving children and their parents or caregivers, opened in late 2001 with 25 children. Today, the center serves 100 children and their parents through the different stages of loss and healing.

Morsbach’s vision for Peter's Place and ongoing volunteer work touches the lives of many in the community who suffer from the loss of a loved one.

“The center is a safe place where children and parents are with other people who have experienced a significant loss,” says Morsbach, who facilitates one of the 3- to 5-year-old groups. “Most people are intimidated by death. The minute you have a death in your family, people change around you. They try to ignore the death, and with children, especially, you can’t do that.

“Grief is something that you carry with you the rest of your life. I see a group of teenage boys sometimes, and wonder if that’s what my son would look like, and break down. You’re going to be sad sometimes, and that’s all right. You learn to live with it. You learned that there can be life and hope after the death of a loved one.”

Children at the center are grouped by age and loss, meeting every other week during the school year, from September to June. Morsbach says play therapy, art therapy, and counseling are offered at no charge with trained facilitators and professionals. While the children interact with their peers, the parents gather in support groups with a social worker to share their experiences.

During the summer months, staff and volunteers of the center give in-service training to area school teachers, church groups, and medical professionals who may deal with grieving children and their families. Peter’s Place is modeled after The Dougy Center for Grieving Children in Portland, Ore., the first center to be established in the United States in 1982 to provide peer support groups for grieving children.

The children at Peter’s Place become close friends, says Morsbach, learning that they’re not alone in the grieving process.

“It’s all about different socio-economic groups,” Morsbach says. “We have a child who saw his mother murdered, and a wealthy child whose mother died in a car accident. The significant loss levels the playground. These are people who might never have met otherwise. Many cannot afford private therapy, and this is a support group for their survival.”

Morsbach said Peter’s Place is the only center of its kind in the area, and that families may drive for an hour to bring their children to participate in the program. Those who have received in-service training from the center, or hear about Peter’s Place by word-of-mouth, often refer grieving families to the center.

She said volunteer facilitators are trained twice a year to help run the children’s support groups, which are broken down by ages—3 to 5, 6 to 10, 11 to 14, and 15 to 18.

“Watching a young child experience death is like seeing a piece of their innocence disappear,” Morsbach says. “But life is death, and it’s something everyone’s going to have to deal with at some point. I know now that life can change in an instant.

“Working with Peter’s Place has been the most incredible gift our son could have given us,” Morsbach says. “The opportunity to help so many people through grief and tragedy has been wonderful. The better job we do giving these children coping skills now, the better job they’ll do as adults in the world.”

That sentiment is expressed in the center’s mission statement, which says, “Grief is a burden no child should carry alone.”

Contact Information

Peter’s Place, A Center for Grieving Children and Families
555 Lancaster Avenue
Berwyn, PA 19312-1680
(610) 889-7400