How can a children’s grief camp be fun? That was my thought until this summer, when I had the privilege of serving as Co-Director of Camp Erin/Oakland – a bereavement camp hosted by Hospice By The Bay and partly funded by The Moyer Foundation, which supports grief camps all over the nation for children and teens ages 6-17 who have experienced a death of a loved one – and witnessed firsthand both the joy and healing that happen when children come together in grief.
In its fifth year of partnership with Hospice By The Bay (HBTB), this three-day camp held in the Occidental redwoods, combines high-energy fun (yes!) with professional grief counseling, education and emotional support. HBTB staff and community volunteers work together from March through August to coordinate this three-day experience which included fun activities this year such as: a scavenger hunt, campfire/drum circle, talent show, archery, softball, swimming, arts and crafts, hiking and a visit from the Marin Humane Society Dogs. Evening rituals include a luminary ceremony in which each camper lights a candle for their loved one(s) and a memory board ceremony when each camper places a photo of their loved one on a community board where it remains for the weekend for all to view during mealtimes. Trained grief counselors from HBTB and the community facilitate therapy groups and provide education as well as an opportunity for children and teens to share loss-related experiences.
I thought I knew a lot about how children grieve (internal experience) and mourn (external expression) yet I was surprised by what I witnessed during the weekend. Children move through emotions from sorrow to silliness with ease, knowing how to be present with whatever arises in a beautiful ebb and flow of letting in and letting go. During and after the solemn Luminary Ceremony, many campers cried, wiped away tears and hugged each other for comfort. One hour later, these same children performed silly skits and dance routines in a lively and spontaneous talent show.
The most recent US Census indicates that more than 1.5 million children nationwide are grieving the death of a parent. Some researchers posit that these children suffer a higher risk of depression, suicide, poverty and substance abuse. I propose that it is unresolved grief – rather than early losses – that may increase the likelihood of the above mentioned. In my work with adult clients, manifestations of unresolved childhood grief might show up as: an inability to express love and attachment to partners or children, or withholding love out of fear of eventual loss; a resistance to long-term commitments; a restlessness or dis-ease in the ongoing search to find what was lost or a lack of empathy for the pain of others. Dr. Alan Wolfelt, author of “A Child’s View of Grief,” offers this:
Only when we encourage children to mourn do we become catalysts for healing. We have learned that children move toward healing not by just grieving, but through mourning. We must help children not just grieve inside themselves, but also mourn outside themselves.
Certainly bereavement camps such as Camp Erin are one way we can become catalysts to support and encourage children and teens to mourn in community. In addition, here are several more:
1. Help children prepare for inevitable and future losses by supporting them in coping with smaller losses, such as the death of a pet. Encourage children to express their feelings; by allowing them to witness your own tears and sadness, you can teach children to increase their capacity to be with all of their emotions.
2. Understand and accept that regressive behaviors during times of loss are likely to be a child’s way to self-soothe in an attempt to make order out of chaos. Such behaviors are common and temporary.
3. Recognize common grief reactions such as increased fears, anxiety, guilt, anger, denial, idealization of the deceased, sadness and loneliness. Children need: reassurance that they are loved; a welcome environment in which to ask questions (ie. who will take care of me? how did grandpa die?) and receive honest, age-appropriate answers; consistent verbal and non-verbal love and support.
4. Realize that children, like adults, do not get over grief but rather learn by what is modeled for them to be with their experience such that healing is a lifelong process of reconciliation between the past, present and future.
And so, as I read the evaluations following our weekend camp, I feel inspired and hopeful by what campers said about their experience:
“I learned that I am not alone….It’s ok to cry…It’s ok to have all sorts of feelings when someone you love dies…Just because they died doesn’t mean you can’t love and remember them…There is no time limit to grief…We all grieve in our own way…I can share my feelings with people I trust and it’s ok to have fun, too…Their light will remain in me.”
Camp Erin is the largest network of free bereavement camps in the country and more than 7,500 children have been served through a network of 40 camps since its inception in 2002. For more information about The Moyer Foundation, please visit: www.moyerfoundation.org