Grief camps offer children a safe environment for mourning

Isaac Niermann, now 6, was a great comfort and companion to his sister Gracie. Gracie — who had red hair and blue eyes and loved to play peekaboo with her health care providers — battled a congenital disorder called Kabuki syndrome. When the children's mom needed Gracie's attention, she'd call Isaac over, because Gracie always kept her eyes on her brother. Isaac used to help his sister, staying with her through her breathing treatments. Gracie died last year of pneumonia, shortly before she would have celebrated her third birthday, said the children's mother, Lauren Niermann.

This summer, Isaac took part in a bereavement camp in Illinois offered by SSM Hospice, part of St. Louis-based SSM Health Care. SSM Hospice holds three grief day camps each summer, one in Jefferson City, located in mid - Missouri, one in suburban St. Louis, and one in Mt. Vernon in Southern Illinois. They're called Camp MAGIC, for "mending a heart, grief in children" and are funded through the SSM Hospice and Home Care Foundation.

"It's hard enough to grieve yourself, and you want to know how to help your child," explained Lauren Niermann. "The difference with children is they can't express it, how they're feeling. They just know that they hurt inside." While Isaac enjoyed the camp's magic show and a visit from a firefighter who allowed the kids to help operate a fire hose, he also made a memory box in honor of Gracie. He decided to put birthday candles for his sister in the box, and his parents said a discussion with him at home about the candles allowed them to learn he wanted to keep celebrating her birthday as a way of remembering his sister. They invited relatives over for cake in Gracie's honor.

Lauren and her husband Tim previously had spoken with a counselor about how children grieve, but for them having a way to better understand how Isaac "was sitting with his grief" has been a help. Isaac called the camp day one of his best days ever, his mom said.

Conversation starters Each free one-day retreat draws roughly 10 to 20 children, and this year, their parents or care providers also were invited. The grown-ups and the children separated in the morning for different activities and information. They reunited in the afternoon to make a memory box together, an activity that sparked lots of shared stories.

The children, usually ages 6 to 12, are paired up with a trained volunteer who spends time with them throughout the day. They write a note to the deceased, and receive a cuddly stuffed bear designed with a pouch to hold their letter. They do a variety of activities throughout the day, designed to be upbeat, and to help them express how they're feeling.

In a game called "thumbball" the children gather in a circle and toss or kick a volleyball that has questions written on it, from: "What's your favorite color?" to "What are you angry about?" and "What's your favorite memory?" When the children pick up or catch the ball, they answer the question closest to where their thumbs land. Carol Leverett, regional director for SSM Hospice, said it's a way for campers to share how they're feeling, to express their loss or simply to get to know each other a little better.

One day camp in suburban St. Louis this summer was held at Purina Farms, a family attraction where the campers got to pet baby animals and release butterflies. "They're all such symbols of new life; it reveals the healing presence of God," Leverett said.

Letting it out In South Florida, Miami-based Catholic Hospice partners with The Moyer Foundation on Camp Erin, a free bereavement camp. The Moyer Foundation, which has offices in Seattle and Philadelphia, was started in 2000 by All-Star pitcher Jamie Moyer and his spouse, Karen. Among its work, the foundation supports grief services for children and teens, including support for about 40 Camp Erin programs around the country. The camps a re named for a child the Moyers met through Make-A-Wish.

Camps were held in Miami and Lake Worth this year, said Maylen Montoto, director of community development for Catholic Hospice, which is part of the Archdiocese of Miami's Catholic Health Services and provides hospice care in homes, nursing homes and in three of its own units.

Montoto said adults can tell children things that don't help in well-intentioned attempts to console them. She said when a child is told that someone died and went to heaven, a child often thinks the person will be able to return. Montoto said sometimes when a family is trying to protect a child, they keep the grieving child away from a funeral home or service. Children have trouble processing a death if they don't truly understand what has happened, she said.

Montoto said teenagers at camp take part in a plate shattering exercise that can help them begin to let go of anger they may have related to a loss. They're asked how they're feeling, and if they can connect their feelings to the death they are grieving. As part of the exercise, they also take pieces of plates and mend them back into a whole, signifying how things can be put back together after a death.

During a scavenger hunt, children look for rocks with words painted on them, such as "sadness," "anger" or "forgiveness." Volunteers who have training in grief therapy ask the children open-ended questions like: "What does that word mean to you?" "How does that relate to how you felt when you lost your mom or dad?"

Bereavement counselors set additional therapy sessions with children as needed. Follow-up events are offered for all participants, such as a group outing to a baseball game. Children may feel they're alone with their grief, and the camps provide them with a friend or support network to help them understand other children have experienced similar losses, Montoto said.

Time for tears In Paducah, Ky., Mercy Health's Lourdes Hospice and Palliative Care sponsors an annual Camp Robin, named in memory of a 13-year-old hospice patient who died in 2005. This year, it was held on April 12, and about 70 children attended, said Shannah Poindexter, community relationship manager for Lourdes Home Care and Hospice. She helps organize and promote the camp. Camp Robin is funded through donations, and staffed by volunteers. Social workers and counselors are on hand as children sort through their emotions.

The camp provides a safe place where children can explore their feelings of grief, Poindexter said, something they may not feel free to do at home. Often, children "are strong for their parents or their guardians. They don't want to cry because they'll make mom cry again."

The camp varies its activities from year to year, and like the other camps, many events are planned to let kids be kids, such as visits from exotic animals and therapy dogs. Younger campers plant flowers in pots they have decorated. Children write letters to the person they are grieving, telling them how they feel about their absence or about what is going on in their lives. The children release balloons with the letters attached, to send their messages to the loved ones now missing from their lives.

Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.