Children mourning a loss find an outdoor outlet at summer grief camp

By Lisa Gutierrez - The Kansas City Star (TNS)

Summer bereavement camps for children are common in most states, according to a list kept by the National Alliance for Children’s Grief.

Summer bereavement camps for children are common in most states, according to a list kept by the National Alliance for Children’s Grief.

College student Devin Rice was about 9 the first time he went to Express Yourself Camp. It was a day camp, so he didn’t have to pack an overnight bag. But he and the other kid campers all arrived with something from home: Their grief.

Rice had lost a close family friend, a woman he loved like an aunt. It was his first experience with death, and “it was definitely really weird because I had known her for such a big part of my life. And then all of a sudden she was gone,” said Rice, who is now 19.

His mom explained to him that Express Yourself was a grief camp, but his grade-school mind didn’t quite know what that meant until he got there and met other children also grieving a loss. Some kids, like him, had lost a loved one. Some were children of divorce. Others had lost friends when their families moved. Big emotions for little kids.

“It was cool to see other people who were in the same position as you,” said Rice, who lives in Kansas City, Kansas.

That summer he found a way to express his pain, thanks to a music therapist who introduced him to the therapeutic benefits of banging on drums. It felt good. It was loud. He was hooked.

Despite the camp’s theme, “it’s not as much a pity party as it might seem. It’s actually a lot of fun,” said Rice, who is finishing his freshman year at the University of Kansas. He’s studying secondary education.

For sure, nothing screams sorrow about Express Yourself Camp, in its 10th year hosted by Saint Luke’s Home Care & Hospice and the Girl Scouts of NE Kansas & NW Missouri.

This year’s camp, June 13 and 14, has relocated to the Girl Scouts’ Camp Prairie Schooner in eastern Jackson County, 176 wooded acres on the bluffs overlooking the Little Blue River.

The lineup of activities is traditional summer camp stuff. Arts and crafts. Fishing. Singing. Skits. There was a zip line last year. Camp nicknames. Camp flags. Fun in the great outdoors.

But here, art class is art therapy, and shaking rain sticks is music therapy, expressing feelings too big to keep inside. And, among the staff, all trained, are bereavement specialists like Bruce Leisy.

“We make it clear that it’s about activities, because children really learn through action and activity and play,” said Leisy, a bereavement coordinator with Saint Luke’s hospice. “I always tell the parents, they don’t even know in many ways that they’re at grief camp.”

Summer bereavement camps for children are common in most states, according to a list kept by the National Alliance for Children’s Grief. Some cater to specific groups, like children who have lost loved ones in the military.

The concept received national exposure in 2014 when HBO made a documentary, “One Last Hug,” about one in Los Angeles.

In addition to Express Yourself Camp, which costs $50 per child, Kansas City Hospice and Solace House every summer host a free children’s grief camp, part of a national program, called Camp Erin Kansas City, this year on June 18.

“Some kids just need a break to get out of the cycle of where they are,” said Leisy.

A few years ago, Canadian counselor Gaby Eirew, who specializes in matters of death and dying, interviewed 100 adults who had lost one or both parents before they were 16. She found a lot of “weird guilt from people who hadn’t been taught to grieve properly.”

Leisy said parents sometimes try to shield children from grief because they think it’s too tough for them to handle.

“I’ll just say about parents, we don’t do death very well,” said Leisy, who gives his business card to parents who want to talk more after camp. “We’re death averse. We don’t like endings, we don’t like goodbyes. We’ll do anything to avoid grief.

“But if we as adults don’t do grief very well, we can’t expect our kids to do that well with it.”

‘Not just mini-adults’

But grief is unavoidable, especially now as so many people, including children, are struggling with the mental health fallout of losing loved ones, social connections and relationships during the pandemic.

Grief in children manifests in myriad physical and emotional ways, says the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Hyperactivity can be a sign of grief. A stomachache. Headache. Inability to swallow because of a lump in the throat. All can signal that a child is struggling.

They might excessively imitate the dead person, or say repeatedly that they want to join the deceased. They might withdraw from friends, start doing poorly in school or even refuse to go at all — also classic signs of depression.

“They all have the words to say, but I don’t think they know how to express how they feel,” said Rice, who now works every summer at the camp as a counselor. “Some of them can say, ‘Oh, I’m sad, oh this upsets me.’”

But they can’t articulate the whys, said Rice.

Age and developmental stage have something to do with how kids handle grief. Children are “not just mini-adults,” said Leisy.

For instance, younger children might regress and temporarily act more infantile, using baby talk again or even wetting the bed at night, even if they’ve been potty-trained.

Preschoolers don’t have the words to express their emotions, so they can experience a lot of confusion, said Roslyn Chelliah, a music therapist with Saint Luke’s Hospice who has worked at three Express Yourself camps and will be back for a fourth next month.

In that age group there’s a lot of what Chelliah called “magical thinking,” the thought that death is not permanent and is reversible, like cartoon characters who bite the dust but then suddenly spring back to life.

Grade-schoolers start to think more like adults about death, “yet they still believe it will never happen to them or anyone they know,” says the psychiatry academy.

Some children might blame themselves for their loved one’s death, or feel guilty.

They might have said something or done something right before their loved one died that makes them feel responsible for the death, a reaction child psychologists see often.

As children get older, they start asking deeper questions, sometimes religious or philosophical in nature, like wondering what happens to a person after they die, Chelliah said.

Grief can also manifest as aggressive behavior in older children, she said, “especially if there’s a feeling of hopelessness or helplessness.”

‘They are resilient’

Express Yourself Camp is just two, eight-hour days, so activities and mood are kept light. It’s summer camp, after all. But as Rice experienced 10 years ago, the campers know from the get-go what they all have in common.

“These kids bond and they are resilient,” said Leisy. “But they need an opportunity to know how to move forward with this grief and not feel guilty or somehow responsible for it.”

Everyone grieves differently. Some kids are definitely more quiet than others. Some kids get quite rambunctious, like they’re trying to outrun the hurt.

Others act like nothing’s wrong, said Rice.

Chelliah uses group music sessions to break that emotional ice, whether it’s having the kids play instruments, rewrite lyrics to popular songs to fit the mood — maybe this summer they’ll rework “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from the Disney movie “Encanto” — or just listen to music.

“Sometimes if they’re having a down day, they will either look for music that lifts them up or lets them sit in it,” said Chelliah.

Leisy makes it clear to parents that counselors tread “very lightly.” They don’t push conversations a child isn’t ready to have. Leisy knows how to read a room.

Over the years, some of the most heartrending moments have happened away from the gaggle of giggly campers, in quiet, one-on-one conversations.

Rice has watched kids quickly transform.

On the first day, campers are kind of reserved and might even laugh a little nervously about why they’re all there. But by the closing ceremony, after knowing more about each other’s stories, “everyone’s cool with each other,” he said. “They all know each other, like each other, mostly.”

If nothing else, said Rice, the camp is fun. “But I think it definitely teaches kids good coping skills that will last them their lifetime,” he said.

“All these years later, I don’t beat on drums. But I’m in the KU marching band.”

Summer bereavement camps for children are common in most states, according to a list kept by the National Alliance for Children’s Grief. bereavement camps for children are common in most states, according to a list kept by the National Alliance for Children’s Grief.

By Lisa Gutierrez

The Kansas City Star (TNS)

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