West Chester woman dedicates 20 years to counseling the grieving

When you’ve accomplished what Sheila Munafo-Kanoza has for 20 years, people tend to notice.

So it’s no surprise that her tiny office in the basement of a professional building on Cincinnati-Dayton Road is lined with awards and plaques. If you’re on a committee that recognizes a Woman of the Year, and you haven’t presented an award to Munafo-Kanoza, you should rethink your criteria.

Next to her office is a small conference room. In the corner hangs a framed picture that was drawn by a young girl who had lost her brother. When the girl showed up for an adult grief counseling session with her mother and grandfather, Munafo-Kanoza handed the girl a piece of paper and Crayons and asked her to draw “her journey.”

MORE: Middletown human trafficking survivor considers herself ‘very lucky’

The girl drew her brother’s heart, a lollipop tree, a cat, a sun, a tree, and a woman wearing a crown.

Intrigued, Munafo-Kanoza asked about the woman in the picture.

“That’s you,” the girl said. “You are a princess because you made me feel loved.”

As Munafo-Kanoza told the story, she paused, then added: “It touches you and that tells you those are the rewards of your life.”

The 62-year-old West Chester Twp. resident has dedicated the last two decades of her life to counseling adolescents, not chasing accolades.

MORE: Volunteer of the Year’s joy spreads throughout Middletown

Thousands of children and adults have walked through the grieving process since Munafo-Kanoza founded Companions on a Journey Grief Support in 1997. Since those humble beginnings at St. Maximilian Kolbe Church in Liberty Twp. with a handful of people, Munafo-Kanoza and her professional staff of bereavement counselors now serve 35 schools, mostly in Butler County, and 650 students every month.

This journey all started after her husband, Vince, who was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 29 and died 10 years later. He left his 37-year-old wife to raise their three children.

That’s when she left her job at Procter & Gamble, where she was responsible for one of the top sales territories in the nation, and began studying bereavement counseling.

Now there are programs designed for children who have lost a loved one, those dealing with a suicide, bereaved parents, perinatal/neonatal support groups, and widowed support groups.

“Out of my pain came my purpose, and out of my purpose came my passion,” said Munafo-Kanoza, citing one of her mottoes.

As a child, Munafo-Kanoza said her father nearly died and even after he recovered, her mother had a nervous breakdown.

“I kept that fear inside me because I thought I may push my mom back into having a breakdown,” she said. “I had to manage and work through the fear.”

MORE: Why some say Middletown’s downtown has turned the corner

Nothing could prepare her for losing her husband. She compared that loss to “someone reaching inside my chest and pulling my heart out.”

Then she added: “It was a pain like no other. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t remember. It’s almost like your brain short-circuits. It’s the same way for children. One day they have mom or dad, and the next day, they don’t.”

One in 20 children lose a parent before they’re 18 and 1 in 8 loses a parent or sibling before they’re 18, she said. And with the increased number of drug overdoses and violent crimes, Munafo-Kanoza expects that percentage to rise.

MORE: Middletown pastor’s goal: Make church ‘place where Jesus would hang out’

“You can’t have closure like some neat little package,” she said. “It’s different for everyone. It’s on-going. Grief, if laid dormant, can become like concrete I tell kids. It’s stuck down in there.”

The conversation returned to her late husband, and how God directed her next career move.

“I know I have my calling,” she said. “I love what I’m doing. I’m just in awe that out of that pain I did find purpose. Making a difference is what this world is all about.”

About the Author