The death of a loved one may mark the beginning of a very trying time for a child. Besides grief, he or she may feel confused and alone. Now hundreds of grief camps across the nation are helping kids to connect with others who have experienced a loss.
"The whole point of the camp is to create this safe, warm, comfortable environment where kids feel like it’s OK to talk about their lives, OK to smile again," says Lesa Anderson, national project director for Camp Erin, the largest network of child bereavement camps in the U.S. The camps are a combination of summer camp and grief counseling where children participate in outdoor activities like hiking and campfires and craft projects to spark discussion. A Chicago-area chapter of Camp Erin holds two sessions this summer, one for children and one for teens.
William Steele, director and founder of the National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children, advises parents considering enrolling their child in a grief camp to check credentials of the organization and counselors handling the children. Kids should be grouped by age, and activities should include time for discussion, Steele says. He also suggests parents look for collective group acts that allow children to express themselves in ways other than words.
At Camp Erin, kids participate in grief acts such as describing feelings on an anger banner, posting photographs of their loss on a memory board and a luminary ceremony where candles are attached to decorated Styrofoam stars and set out to sea. The camp is an activity-packed, free weekend getaway for kids.
"I would encourage parents to start at the group camps," Steele says. "Let’s not get kids involved with intense treatment beforehand. … They just need to know that they’re not alone and they do better."
For many children, grief camp provides the perfect atmosphere to begin to let go of their grief, Anderson says.