Helen Fitzgerald, a therapist, author, and national advocate for the bereaved whose career began in personal grief, passed away Sunday at a hospital in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
During the seven-month coma of her dying husband, Jerald, Ms. Fitzgerald met the founder of the death-and-dying movement in social work, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who encouraged her to enter the field. Following her husband’s death, she co-founded the second chapter of Make Today Count, a mutual support organization, and began providing unpaid, volunteer grief support for the patients of oncologists at Fairfax Hospital in Virginia. In 1977, three years after her husband’s death, she was named coordinator of the grief program at Mount Vernon Community Mental Health Center in Alexandria. It was the first such program in the nation to be part of a community health center. She held that position until her retirement in 2000.
In addition to her local work with the bereaved, Ms. Fitzgerald was a national advocate for more humane ways of death and dying. Together with her second husband Richard Olson, Ms. Fitzgerald published The Grieving Child: A Parent’s Guide (Simon & Schuster, 1992) with a foreword written by Kübler-Ross. She subsequently published The Mourning Handbook (1994) and The Grieving Teen (2000). All three books remain in print. She directed training for the American Hospice Foundation, delivered programs for workplaces and schools around the country after traumatic events, and wrote guides for hospices and columns for the web. She served as a director of the Association for Death Education and Training, and was recognized with its Clinical Practices Award in 1999. Ms. Fitzgerald enjoyed drawing, painting, and sculpting, and incorporated these into therapeutic sessions with children and adults.
Helen T. Cihak was born in 1938 to John and Mayme Cihak in the small town of Jackson, MN, where her parents owned a farm. As a teenager she enjoyed horseback riding and rode one of two matched horses with her father in county fairs and other local events, sometimes performing with a trick horse. In 1956, she met Jerald Fitzgerald, an official with the state department of agriculture. They married and had three daughters and a son. In 1962 the family moved to Virginia, where her husband was assigned to a post with the USDA.
Ms. Fitzgerald’s husband Richard Olson died in 2017. She is survived by her children Sarah, Charles, and Mary Fitzgerald, all of Virginia. She leaves three grandchildren, a great-grandchild, the extended family of Richard Olson, and two siblings, Larry Cihak and Alice Pofahl. A daughter, Patti Ann Fitzgerald Rauld of San Marcos, CA, passed away in 2008.
Donations to honor Helen Fitzgerald may be made to the Hospice Foundation of America. Memorial services are planned but not yet scheduled. This page will be updated with details when available.