During his final year in college, Steelers cornerback Artie Burns’ mother Dana Smith had a sudden heart attack and died. With his father in prison, the 20-year-old had to worry about his two younger brothers, aged 15 and 12 at the time.
Since then, Burns has become a first round draft pick, a father and a rising star on the Steelers’ defense. But he is still dealing with his grief, and the holidays can be especially tough for the family.
“Just making sure all the emotions are good,” Burns said. “It’s there. I mean, people try to cover it up but it’s there.”
Last week, Burns found some joy at Savoy in the Strip District. He rented out the restaurant for the night, covered it with holiday cheer and invited children who had also suffered losses.
“Just like me, they missing their loved one too,” he said. “You know, just being able to share this moment with them, being able to enjoy the holidays with them is just something I wanted to do. Just remember all the good memories you had with them.”The children invited to the dinner had been through Highmark Caring Place, which offers free help to grieving families.
Director Terese Vorsheck said children don’t always show their grief the same way adults do. She said they might try to hide their pain because they don’t want to upset others who are grieving the same loss.
“Oftentimes adults will call us up and say, ‘I don’t know if my child’s grieving or not,’” Vorsheck said. “How we respond to that is, if they are talking about it or not, the fact that somebody they loved died, they are grieving.”
Caring Place Manager Andrea Lurier said while holidays are often a trigger, other special days such as the first day of fishing season, or the first day of school can amplify grief if it’s reminiscent of special memories.
For adults who want to help, Lurier said the best thing to do is listen.
“Sometimes children will say, ‘Everybody walks on egg shells around me and they don’t know what to say,’” Lurier said. “I think it’s better to just approach children and say, ‘I understand your dad died. I’m so sad for you. Tell me about your dad.’ That’s just a wonderful entrée into letting the children know I’m open to hearing, I want to hear about your story.”
Children will often turn to classmates for support, but 11-year-old Paige McAndrew said that doesn’t always work.
“I don’t think they should feel pity,” she said. “I think they should just be your friend and guide you through it.”
McAndrew’s parents took her to the Caring Place after her infant brother died.
Experts at the Caring Place said peer support is important and that it’s a part of its program.
“Grief is a normal process but it can make you feel so many difficult feelings and to know that someone else like you has similar feelings like, ‘Wow, I’m angry too, or I’m confused too and we share that,’” Lurier said. “It has a very powerful effect on the children.”
McAndrew met 14-year-old Leah Picarski during one of those sessions.
“To me it was kind of comforting knowing that there is someone going through the same thing that I’m going through,” Picarski said.
McAndrew’s mom, Christine, waited a-year-and-a-half before getting help. By then, her daughter’s grades were slipping. She said she wished she had gone sooner.
“Seeing parents that were just starting to deal with the loss of their child and watching their transition over the few months that I was there, I felt like they really coped better than I did,” Christine McAndrew said.
Experts stress there is no one way to grieve a loved one.
“I think what’s most important to know is that the grief doesn’t go away in two months, six months, one year, two years,” Vorsheck said. “Oftentimes, especially with kids, the grief lasts for a very long time because they go through different developmental milestones in which that important person isn’t there.”
Burns used the holiday dinner to launch his charity, Dana’s Angels, named for his mother. He said the small gathering was just the start. He intends to grow the dinner and launch more efforts in the future.
“You know, just keep making (people) more aware,” he said. “And people would be more comfortable coming out and talking about it.”
Burns said he thinks his mother is smiling down on him and his brothers. This weekend, Burns flew his two brothers up to Cincinnati, where the Steelers played the Bengals, for a family Christmas gathering.