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Cook County morgue to offer grief counseling to families

Wednesday, June 18, 2014
Chicago Sun-Times
by Tina Sfondeles

The Cook County morgue will begin a pilot grief counseling program this fall for families who have the grim task of identifying the remains of loved ones, including homicide victims, at the West Side facility.

Spearheaded by Antonia Mayorga, executive assistant to Cook County’s Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Stephen Cina, the program will help families through the process of identifying loved ones, which includes examining pictures of the deceased, and will also offer follow-up resources for grieving families.

“It’s my hope that we can ease the family’s burden,” Mayorga said.

The program was Mayorga’s idea — she holds a master’s degree in social work – and she chose her alma mater to be part of an interagency agreement, which is awaiting the Cook County Board’s approval on Wednesday. She plans to choose a second-year graduate student from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Jane Addams College of Social Work for an unpaid internship to work on the program.

The intern, along with Mayorga, will help prepare family members to see the deceased body.

“We definitely want to prepare them for this. . . . The body may have changed . . . we want to prepare them,” for what they’re about to see, Mayorga said. “And we definitely want them to know we will be there for follow-ups should they need assistance in terms of victim assistance, or local resources, like extended counseling on a more permanent basis.”

Mayorga said she plans to help families by giving them a list of resources about survivor support programs regarding homicide, sudden infant death syndrome, suicide and general bereavement. Mayorga and the intern will also make follow-up calls.

The program will also serve to supplement the process the Cook County medical examiner’s office typically uses to identify bodies. Visual identification is only allowed in cases of homicide or unidentified remains.

Currently, two family members are allowed to see a photo of the body, accompanied by a morgue intake employee. Before Cina took over the facility on Chicago’s West Side, family members viewed the body on a live video feed.

When the program begins, Mayorga and the student will instead be in the viewing room to help families in the identification process.

Frank Shuftan, spokesman for the Cook County Bureau of Administration, said changes to the identification process were made to be respectful of both the deceased and the family while allowing medical examiner staff to conduct its business in an orderly and professional way.

“The medical examiner’s office is not a funeral home, and this is not a wake,” Shuftan said. “Grief can easily become or lead to other emotions, and it’s just a better and a more conducive environment. . . . It’s a better controlled environment.”

The new program marks the first time the medical examiner’s office has delved into grief counseling services. In Washington, D.C., the medical examiner’s office is one of a handful of cities that also offer grief counseling.

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