Bereavement services founder Leslie Delp speaks to importance of responding to children’s grief, loss

A York County bereavement specialist uses her own close encounters with death to help others navigate loss, grief and mourning.

By Catherine Amoriello

For our girl members, Girl Scouts is an avenue for fun, friendship and facing challenges in a supportive environment. Troop meetings bring big toothy grins, Summer Camp sessions echo with girl laughter, and weekly programming events buzz with the excited chatter of members eager to learn. But unfortunately, these happy, carefree girls are not immune to tragedy and loss. The school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in May is just one of many recent reminders that children are just as likely as adults to be exposed to violence and death. And if they’re lucky enough not to witness it firsthand, they’re seeing it on the news, hearing it being discussed by their caregivers, or experiencing loss at home in other ways.

Leslie Delp, founder of and bereavement specialist at Olivia’s House Grief and Loss Center for Children.

While it’s taken until recent years for children and teen mental health issues to come to the forefront, Leslie Delp, founder of and bereavement specialist at Olivia’s House Grief and Loss Center for Children in York County, identified in the 1990s that children confronted with death and loss require unique support.

“Children mourn differently than adults. Grief is inside, mourning is outside. The body keeps score, and it doesn’t forget,” Delp said.

After surviving two nearly-fatal accidents as both a child and an adult, and then experiencing a miscarriage in her first pregnancy, Delp is sadly well-acquainted with death and near-death experiences. But instead of allowing these devastating events to become her full story, she opted to change the narrative.

“I always wanted to prove to myself that the reason I’m still here is because I have something that I’m supposed to do,” Delp said. “That’s what’s going to keep this world afloat. Yes this happened to me, but here’s what I’m going to do to turn it around.”

As she pursued her master’s degree in counseling psychology, Delp began researching death and dying and developed a curiosity about life after death and connections to passed loved ones. She enrolled as a volunteer at a hospice and gained additional insight by learning from the residents who passed their final days there. The day after Delp graduated, she opened her own private practice, Grief and Bereavement Services.

Olivia’s House clients release balloons during a Celebration of Life Graduation event. This has been a ritual since the organization’s inception in the 1990s.

In 1996, Delp founded Olivia’s House to help children who suffer losses, whether they be death losses or non-death losses, such as a divorce in the family. From bereavement camps for children that teach them healthy coping mechanisms, to family-based programs focused on educating both children and caregivers about how their body grieves, Delp sought to create an open place of resource and support in a topic area generally regarded as taboo. She hopes her life’s work will help push away stigmas surrounding depression, suicide and death.

“Mental health is important. And without an understanding of how your brain processes life’s disappointments and traumas, we’ll suffer. And we’re not meant to suffer. We’re meant to enjoy life,” Delp said.

Olivia’s House Grief and Loss Center for Children has two locations in York, Pa. (pictured) and Hanover, Pa.

A career in bereavement services is not for everyone – it’s a high burnout environment that calls for a unique ability to balance the trauma of the field with other work responsibilities. Delp advises those interested in going into bereavement services to choose their school wisely, shadow people already in the field and keep a realistic mindset that the journey will not be easy. But accruing the knowledge and experience necessary to give families the gift of goodbye will be worth it.

“You don’t get paid very well, but you get paid by the children and families in buckets,” Delp said. “You know you made a difference – you know you healed a heart.”

For volunteers and parents/caregivers interested in having their girl learn more about mental health issues, check out GSHPA Program Partner Byrnes Health Education Center for their available mental health programming for youth. For volunteers and parents/caregivers interested in learning more about stressors that may impact girls’ mental health, register to attend GSHPA’s Virtual Volunteer Conference Nov. 5 to participate in a mental health awareness informational session.

Catherine Amoriello is a Marketing and Communications Coordinator specializing in writing and editing for Girl Scouts in the Heart of Pennsylvania. Reach her by email at camoriello@gshpa.org.