Children learn coping skills at bereavement camp

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Recovering from the loss of a loved one is difficult. But for children, the emotional pain often is compounded by feelings of loneliness and fear. Many suffer in silence.

Children have their own way of coping with death, say HPH Hospice workers.
Harley Plot, 10, shares her memory box with counselor Debra Drean, showing a photograph of her and her grandfather. The activity was designed to help children learn to express their feelings as they create boxes in memory of their lost loved one. KIM DAME

Through a bereavement camp designed specifically for elementary school-aged children, Hospice grief counselors aim to help such children handle their losses.

Glen Lakes Country Club provided the facility Wednesday for 15 children, ages 5 to 11, as a place where they could continue working through their grief by learning coping skills. Some mourned the loss of a parent. Others grieved for a grandparent or other close relative.

All shared feelings of confusion and sadness.

Through the camp they learned they were not alone.

Laura Finch, Bereavement and Children’s Assistance Program manager, said the camp has been held at Glen Lakes for 10 years and combines interactive games with craft projects to help the children begin to share.

Grief counselors consistently observe behaviors as the children work through the activities.

Each child at the camp had seen a Hospice grief counselor at least once before being recommended for the program. Licensed counselors were on hand — at least one for each group — and volunteers were abundant.

The first activity, Socio Matrix, kicked off the day of fun that centered on building coping skills the kids would take with them to help them mourn their losses.

Counselors and volunteers held up signs with descriptive words such as ‘lonely,’ ‘afraid’ or ‘confused’. The children were encouraged to stand by the sign that best described their feelings. The exercise helped counselors learn which emotions were present while the children engaged in a fun activity.

“It’s a way for children to start sharing their feelings without verbalizing them,” Finch said.

Participants then tackled a craft project, Memory Boxes, that involved using stickers, markers and other tools to help children celebrate their special loved one.

They were encouraged to bring a picture from home to place inside the box.

Their creativity was ignited as the room became filled with chatter. Volunteers scrambled to find items the children requested to help them build a visual story about their loss.

The boxes demonstrated the special relationships the kids shared with their deceased loved one.

Later, they were encouraged to talk about their boxes in front of the group.

Debra, a grief counselor, gently coaxed them to describe how the images they chose reflected their loved one.

After lunch, the children took advantage of the pool where they again were encouraged to talk if they wanted to do so.

An afternoon activity — decorating masks with art supplies — gave the children another opportunity to express their feelings. They were encouraged to discuss their project and how the loss was affecting them.

HPH Hospice holds two camps for children each year.

A weekend retreat focused on older children — middle- and high school-aged children — was held in March.

The purpose of both camps is to use age-appropriate activities to help children learn how to cope with their losses.

“Sometimes kids look like they aren’t grieving when they are,” Finch said.

Before the children were reunited with their parents and prior to a final ceremony, a meeting was held between parents and staffers to discuss how parents might continue helping the children work through their grief.

“The worst thing we can do after teaching kids coping skills is to not send their parents home with resources,” a hospice staffer said.