Over the past twenty years that have elapsed since our daughter, Leah died, I have had the privilege to work with children who have experienced loss. Children’s grief can be simple or complicated like much of the grief that adults feel. Children have not accumulated the experience that adults have. Therefore, it can be overwhelmingly difficult for them to understand loss and come to terms with grief.
Soon after Leah died, I volunteered in a program that was sponsored by the Frederick County Hospice in Maryland. The program was called Camp Jamie and it drew children from the county who had experienced the death of a parent, grandparent of sibling. At the time, I didn’t have any experience working in this kind of program but the idea appealed to me as a way of giving back and helping someone else in their suffering.
The program paired adult volunteers with children who were then grouped according to age. The camp was held at a local youth summer camp and the facilities were ideal since it had the ballfields, games and activities that allowed the kids to burn off their excess energy after the group had a chance to do some process work.
Each night registered counselors reviewed the days activities. The adult debrief provided the adult volunteers with suggestions on ways to allow the child to open up about what they were feeling and discussed methods for engaging the kids There was craft projects and plenty of time to do group activities focused around the kids.
The adults modeled talking about the losses that they had experienced to encourage the kids to tell their story.
Another program was Comfort Zone Camp held in North Carolina at a YMCA summer camp. Comfort Zone Camp provided pre-screening and adult training of what to expect during the camp weekend. Again, the volunteers were matched to an age related group of kids. These kids had also had lost parents, siblings and grandparents. Adult volunteers or Big Buddies worked in various group process sessions with Little Buddies. The program ran from about age 4-5 up to late teens. weekend had a full itinerary that included a variety of sports, fun group activities and being outdoors.
What distinguished these programs were the individual camp atmosphere and the process work that each group was provided. In both programs, as the children were dropped off by their parents or guardians; you could visibly see that they carried the heavy weight of their loss. Seeing other kids who had experienced loss helped each child understand that they were not alone. Group team building, process work in small groups and personal storytelling by the volunteers helped break the ice and make the kids feel comfortable talking about their loved ones.
Of course there were meals together, camp songs and in the case of Comfort Zone Camp, a very formal night vigil with lighted luminaire that the kids had decorated in memory of their family member. Each activity contributed to making the weekend memorable. Each night the adults reviewed the days progress.
Each program had a very positive impact on the attendees and the heavy weight they carried on Friday was all but removed by Sunday afternoon. To see the difference that this time away provided was to see the burden lifted, allowing the kids to be kids again. It was very rewarding. A program like this is always looking for volunteers and age is not a barrier to providing a helping hand to a kid who needs a compassionate ear. I’ll talk more about kids grief and the Grief Recovery Method in another post.