Heather Nesle, President, New York Life Foundation

Heather Nesle, President, New York Life Foundation

The New York Life Foundation is one of a handful of grantmakers that support childhood bereavement programs for children who have lost a loved one. This year, on Children's Grief Awareness Day, November 19, the foundation is launching the Shared Grief Project, a website that seeks to "open up" the dialogue around childhood grief by featuring role models whose "grief journeys" can offer inspiration and guidance to grieving children.

PND asked New York Life Foundation president Heather Nesle about the foundation's grantmaking in the childhood bereavement area, its accomplishments to date, and its hopes for the future.

Philanthropy News Digest: Through its Nurturing the Children initiative, the New York Life Foundation has awarded grants to childhood bereavement programs since 2007. How did the foundation come to focus on support for children who have lost a family member or friend?

Heather Nesle: Our dedication to the issue of childhood bereavement began with our support of Comfort Zone Camp, the nation's largest childhood grief camp. Through that relationship, we quickly learned that supporting grieving children was something our employees and agents were particularly passionate about — as well as an issue in urgent need of increased attention and investment.

Like many of our corporate foundation peers, we've looked to integrate our philanthropic strategy with the company's overarching mission and values. Part of New York Life's mission is to provide peace of mind for our policy holders, and we see providing comfort and assistance to children in their time of greatest need as a direct, natural extension of that. We also saw an exciting opportunity to get involved with the issue from the ground up by engaging our extensive agent network.

PND: What kinds of programs and services for grieving children and their families does the foundation fund? And what have you learned about the kinds of support that are most effective in helping children cope with the loss of a loved one?

HN: Our key partners/programs include the National Alliance of Grieving Children, a national network of grief stakeholders whose reach we have helped expand considerably over the past few years; Grief Reach, our program for delivering direct support to childhood bereavement centers and programs across the country through community expansion and capacity-building grants; the Coalition to Support Grieving Students, a group of leading K-12 professional organizations that we convened to produce new educator-specific grief resources and training materials; Camp Erin/Moyer Foundation and Comfort Zone Camp, networks of free bereavement camps; the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), which offers compassionate care to those grieving the death of a loved one who served in our armed forces; and Boys and Girls Clubs of America. We also recently sponsored the HBO documentary "One Last Hug," an intimate portrayal of the Camp Erin program that premiered in 2014 and won an Emmy for Best Children's Programming.

We fund a diverse range of programs and organizations, but they all share two basic convictions: that grieving children need to feel they're not alone, and that they need to have outlets to express their grief. Every child is different, so we try to help educate people to better recognize and understand the variety of forms grief can take.  

PND: The foundation's total grantmaking in support of childhood bereavement is nearing the  $25 million mark, making it one of the largest of the handful of funders engaged in this area. Are you surprised that the issue of childhood bereavement hasn't attracted more support from funders?

HN: Yes and no. On the one hand, childhood bereavement is incredibly pervasive — one in twenty children loses a parent by the age of 16, and the vast majority of children will experience a close loss by the time they complete high school — so it's surprising that this issue remains largely under the radar. Unfortunately, we live in a death-averse society and bereavement isn't something that most people think about until they are personally affected and experience the lack of support structures firsthand.

For many funders, childhood bereavement is still a niche area with limited opportunities for support. Most of the nonprofits in the space are very local in nature, and there aren't many groups working to unite and build the field on a national level. That's why New York Life has made capacity building in the bereavement field one of our key focus areas. We're actively spreading the word about this cause among other corporate and private foundations in an effort to grow awareness of the need and attract more funders to the space.

PND: Launched on Children's Grief Awareness Day, November 19, the Shared Grief Project website shares the stories of athletes, entertainers, and other celebrities who lost a parent or sibling while growing up as a way of letting grieving children know they are not alone. The site also provides discussion guides and other resources aimed at parents, educators, and other adults who work with grieving children. How do the stories shared by athletes and other public figures complement the support children receive from those closer to them? 

HN: Our hope is that the Shared Grief Project will get kids to pay attention to this issue by showing them that some of their role models also went through a similar experience and went on to live happy, successful lives. Grief can be an unbelievably isolating experience for children, and our aim is to let them know that many others — including those in the limelight — have been through it and can attest that it does get better over time.

We also want these stories to help encourage broader conversations about grief and loss, not only between grieving children and trusted adults but peer-to-peer as well. As you'll see from the videos, some of the public figures get emotional when they discuss their loss. We want kids to understand that it's okay to show emotion and to share your feelings with your peers.

PND: With so many celebrities sharing their stories of loss on the site, do you expect to see increased awareness of the need for childhood grief support? And what are your goals for the next $25 million?

HN: We certainly hope that the Shared Grief Project will help to open up the dialogue around childhood grief and prompt more people — whether or not they have personally experienced a close loss — to recognize this as an issue that needs greater support.

When we look toward the future, we feel strongly about continuing to support direct service providers in the bereavement field. We also are looking to increase our investment in bereavement research in order to better understand what strategies are most effective for reaching and supporting grieving children. Another important goal moving forward is to continue to elevate the conversation nationally around grief and attract other corporate funders to the space so we can really move the needle on providing more and better assistance to grieving children and their families. 

Finally, we want to continue to expand the engagement of our own employees and agents around this issue. So many here at New York Life care deeply about the issue of childhood bereavement — volunteering their time at grief camps, local support centers, and beyond. I think you'd be hard pressed to find another cause that is as integrated in the mission of a company as childhood bereavement is for us.

-- Kyoko Uchida