Have you ever lost a loved one? A spouse, parent or even child?
You know how hard and isolating life can be, but there's a unique place in Arizona helping grieving families navigate life following a catastrophic loss.
“It’s so green and lush here, it’s like an oasis in the desert,” Joanne Cacciatore said.
Roughly 100 miles outside the hustle and bustle of Phoenix, a special place exists in the town of Cornville. It's a 10-acre farm nestled right along Oak Creek where the dogs roam free and Wilbur the pig's belly almost touches the ground.
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"We have five horses, five dogs, seven sheep and a pig," Cacciatore said.
It might sound like a traditional farm but it certainly isn't.
"This is a place where people can come and feel whatever they feel without apology," Cacciatore said.
The Selah Care Farm was created by Cacciatore last year to help families suffering from traumatic loss, something Cacciatore knows well.
"It is the worst possible thing that can happen in a family system," Cacciatore said.
Cacciatore gave birth to a stillborn daughter in 1994.
"I wasn't sure I was going to survive. There were several points I thought I'm not going to live through this. This is going to kill me," Cacciatore said.
The pain she felt was unbearable. After her daughter's death, Cacciatore spent many nights in her closet crying, trying not to wake up her young children.
"I said to myself one day if I lived through this, I'm going to help other families who are going through this," Cacciatore said.
In 1996, the grief counselor started the MISS Foundation, an organization that provides counseling, advocacy and education to families dealing with the death of a child.
“We just kept growing and growing, and now we have 77 chapters around the world,” Cacciatore said.
Her newest project, the Selah Care Farm, was inspired by a horse she rescued several years ago.
"I rescued this horse that was being beaten on a trail. He had been starved for what the vet said had been many years. I could see the pain of that animal and I connected with it," Cacciatore said.
The families she worked with had a similar experience.
"They could see their own pain reflected in this horse and I said there is something really powerful going on here," Cacciatore said.
This got Cacciatore thinking about the power of rescue animals and how they can help families dealing with devastating loss.
"So I started researching because I'm a researcher. Are there farms? Are there therapeutic farms where humans can connect with animals? I found care farming of which there are really none in the United States," Cacciatore said.
She opened Selah Care Farm more than a year ago where grieving humans and rescue animals bond in a unique way.
“It’s very important that all of our animals are rescued because we are giving them a safe place and the humans that come here sense that," Cacciatore said.
Each month, 60 to 70 families visit. Many spend the day in Cornville meeting with Cacciatore and honoring their loved ones.
Around the property, you'll find powerful signs and special spots in every corner for people to meditate and pray.
"This is an old ash. This beautiful old ash that's heard lots of tears and it just stands there like a therapist," Cacciatore said as she sits in the farm's new quiet place.
People come from right here in Arizona to as far away as Egypt and Cambodia because grief connects us all.
"There is a sense of oneness and solidarity. There's a sense of I'm not the only one who's been through this horrible thing," Cacciatore said.
Jennifer Huberty knows Cacciatore's pain. She also gave birth to a stillborn daughter.
"I remember driving to the hospital crying thinking I can't wait to meet her. I can't wait to hold her. She was full-term, we don't know why she died," Huberty said.
That was seven years ago, but the pain of losing a child never goes away.
"Grief is every single day of my life," Huberty said.
It's a daily struggle with many ups and downs.
"I'm a professor at ASU. If I was having grieving emotions and I have to go to a meeting, I have to put on my game face and go to a meeting and literally suppress the feelings that I am having," Huberty said.
But, not at the Selah Care Farm.
"I don't have to put on my game face. I'm not the ASU professor. I'm the mom of a daughter who isn't here," Huberty said.
On this day, Huberty looks through the medallion tree, a special remembrance spot at the farm, hoping to find her daughter's name.
"Yeah, here it is, right here. That's cool. It's kind of sad you know. It reminds you she's not here," Huberty said right after she found Raine's name etched in metal.
At the Selah Care Farm, Huberty celebrates Raine and the lessons she's taught her.
"Even though she's not physically here, I've learned so much from her and mostly what blessings can come from tragedy," Huberty said.
One of those blessings is Cacciatore and her healing place in Cornville where Huberty and other grieving families celebrate and connect with their children miles away from everyday life.
Earlier this year, Huberty raised more than $25,000 for the care farm in honor of Raine.
“We’re talking about building a pathway to the creek behind the farm so that families can walk a very quiet path to an area where they can be in the water,” Huberty said.
By the end of the year, Cacciatore hopes to start building an actual home on the property so that grieving families can stay overnight and really get the full experience.
She's also working to develop a model so that this can be re-created in other communities.
“We’re working on a training program so leaders in other communities can come here and learn this model and bring it back to their communities,” Cacciatore said.
To find out more about Cacciatore's work and the Selah Care Farm, click here.
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