A Story from Our Amanda the Panda Program: Saundra Connett

Unlike most kids, Saundra Connett’s 11-year-old great-grandson Vincent looked forward to the first day of the week. 

“[Vincent] was cheerful on Mondays, man, he couldn’t wait to come home from school to go to Amanda the Panda” said Connett.

EveryStep’s Grief & Loss Services’ Amanda the Panda program was no playground or amusement park. However, it was a place to where Vincent felt comfortable and could face his grief. Vincent lost his great-grandfather, Victor Connett Sr., in 2017. But “Paa,” as Vincent fondly called Victor, was more than just an elderly family relation.

About a decade ago, the Connetts took responsibility for raising Vincent.

“Vincent has always lived with [Victor and I], so we are the parent figures,” explained Saundra Connett. 

The family maintains a “shrine” for Victor in their home, consisting of a few mementos by which to remember Victor. But one item is of special relevance to Vincent: a little box containing Victor’s ashes.

“Sometimes [Vincent will] ask if he can hold Paa,” said Connett. “And he does, he sits and holds him, and he talks to him.” The little box is Vincent’s way to ‘hold’ onto his great-grandfather. Yet Vincent continued to struggle with his grief.  

 “Vincent was having a lot of problems with Victor passing away. He’d already had a lot of problems with missing school, a lot of it was his depression” said Connett.

Vincent’s problems make perfect sense in the context of his upbringing. In Vincent’s eyes, losing Victor was like losing his own father.

“In school we’ve got teacher figures and kids telling [Vincent] don’t cry…it was just your [great]-grandpa,” said Connett. “But it wasn’t for him. And they don’t understand that.”

The inability of Vincent’s peers to understand his grief further exacerbated the issue. An otherwise sprightly adolescent, Vincent would get distracted from his work and sometimes cry during the day.

“We’ve been slow at trying to get help because I was more worried about getting bills taken care of…” explained Connett.

But help arrived through EveryStep Grief & Loss Services’ Amanda the Panda program. After learning about the program’s benefits from one of her daughters, Connett decided to enroll Vincent in a weekly support group at the Amanda the Panda Family Grief Center in January 2018. However, one problem remained: Saundra was unable to drive to the evening support group sessions due to her eyesight. 

 “[They said] we can have someone come pick you up,” said Connett. “They just extend themselves, they’re there for anything you need help with.”

Going above and beyond to help clients is a core philosophy at Amanda the Panda, which also offered Connett support with various other aspects of her life, including providing resources for medical attention and recommendations of companies that could help her repair her home.

While Amanda the Panda’s main purpose is to support individuals through the grieving process, such instances of additional assistance are not uncommon given the close relationships that often form between staff and clients. Most importantly for Vincent, Amanda the Panda offered a community of peers that could empathize with his situation.

“Vincent enjoyed hearing from the kids that were in his class and their issues and how they were dealing with it” said Connett. “He got a lot of support from this group, even though it was one night a week. He really enjoyed it.”

And Connett has already observed some positive changes in Vincent.

“Vincent is not saying he misses Paa quite so much through the day anymore. I sure get a lot of ‘I love yous’ all day long and at nighttime when he’s home,” said Connett. “He’s matured a little bit going through [support group].”

Connett, too, joined a support group at Amanda the Panda. Losing Victor, her husband for over fifty years, also meant losing an important source of support.

“They really made me feel welcome …they’re my friends, they’re my contacts and I really enjoyed being with them,” said Connett.

When asked what she would say to someone facing a similar life situation as her own, Connett responded without hesitation:

“I would tell them to go to Amanda the Panda. I would make sure they got the phone call made or that they got out there to talk. It means so much to have somebody there to hear their stories. It was really a nice awakening for me to have somebody there.”

If your friend or relative is grieving the loss of a loved one, please encourage them to explore the programs offered by EveryStep’s Grief & Loss Services, which can be found at everystep.org/services/grief-loss.

This story is an edited excerpt of a piece written by Drake University student Phani Chevuru.