Letting Go Of The Pain At Bereavement Camp, Youngsters Begin The Long Journey From Anguish To Acceptance


J. J. took a deep breath, reached into the bucket of bright flowers and pulled out a white carnation, long-stemmed and fragrant.

The 9-year-old clutched the thin stalk between his fingers, brushed the pure petals against his dirty white pants.

"I picked white 'cause of Georgie," he muttered. "Me and my Mommy's boyfriend wore white pants and a white shirt. Every time we go to church we wear white. Me and him were kinda like twins. That's why I picked white. That's why I'm wearin' white."

George Pindell died earlier this year after a heart attack.

A few minutes later on this hot Sunday afternoon, J. J. -- James Butler Jr. -- stood on the edge of a wooden pier in Anne Arundel County and dropped his carnation into the Severn River.

With this gesture of release, he and the 53 other youngsters at a camp for bereaved children began to let go of three days of emotion, of raw anger and guilt and grief.

As they climbed the steps away from the dock, they left behind the fragments -- loose petals, flowers without stems, stems without flowers, bits of red, gold, pink and white, washing up and down in the water, floating away like grief into memory.

"Peace comes dropping slow," wrote the poet Yeats, and so it did for the bereaved children of Camp Nabe.

The weekend of Aug. 20 didn't start easily. Adult counselors at the camp, which was sponsored by the Hospice of the Chesapeake, recalled their own losses. Mourning children were unusually fearful of strangers.

One 6-year-old who didn't want to be left jumped on his mother's back, reaching around her neck for the wide gold wedding band -- her husband's wedding ring, his father's wedding ring -- that hung from a chain. Little Daniel Sevanick clutched as if he couldn't be parted from his mother, Linda, and in the end, he wasn't. She took him home.

Daniel's sister Anya, 9, stayed, blotting out the memory of her father, Eli, who had died at the breakfast table six months before. Two deep breaths and a heart attack, and he was gone. Until this weekend, Anya had never mentioned her father's death to anyone outside her family.

Friday night in the camp dining hall the children, ages 6-14, went around the room introducing themselves, talking about their favorite colors, their pets -- and their losses.

"My Dad's name was Mark," said 9-year-old Steve Ferris, matter-of-factly. Others were not so composed. One small boy got out the word "Dad" before bending over, rent with tears.

There was good reason for the pain. Children had lost parents and siblings through car accidents, through homicide, suicide, old age and illness.

Death immersed each child in pits of loneliness, fear, anger at being left behind and guilt that the death might be "their fault." They felt pain at not knowing how to express grief, or even what "grief" was. Some just knew they felt awful, and, they said, "different" from their friends.

Here, they weren't different.

There was Shane Kearney, 11, who after three years of professional therapy still was unable to accept his older sister's death, which a medical malpractice suit had charged was caused by a hospital's error. Every time he heard an ambulance, he got angry.

There was Amy Evans, whose older brother had died of leukemia. The 7-year-old wouldn't take off her brother's sunglasses. She wore them constantly; caressed them, clutched them at night.

Camp Nabe was started a year ago for such children, not to "cure" them but to offer perspective on death, said director Betty Asplund. The camp provides children a safe place to talk about their feelings and suggests appropriate ways to handle grief and anger, she said.

"We do a lot of work with anger and guilt, memories, burdens," Ms. Asplund said. "We explain that we can't help what our feelings are; they just are. We tell the children that grief spasms are going to recur, but life will be joyful again. We make choices to be happy."

On her office wall hangs the Bible verse: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."

It could be the motto for the hospice, a non-profit organization which supports a family through a terminal illness and for up to 15 months after the family member dies.

Most hospices in the country offer bereavement support as a part of their services to families of dying patients, but three years ago Anne Arundel's hospice expanded its bereavement program into a large center, which has gained national attention.

The Millersville-based center provides trained social workers and a library and holds bereavement sessions for families and children in cases of suicide, homicide and accident, as well as terminal illness.

Ms. Asplund, who is certified in bereavement support by the Association for Death Education and Counseling, developed a manual explaining the bereavement center and last year held its first camp for bereaved children. Her manual is being used in the Netherlands, Canada and Russia, as well as dozens of states, and 23 states have held bereavement camps based on the Arundel model.

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