Camp to show children how to handle grief

May 16, 1994|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Staff Writer

Grief can be like a huge ball, so enormous a child can hardly wrap his arms around it. With help, the child can shrink the ball to a tiny marble and tuck it away in his heart.

Camp T. R. hopes to provide that help to Carroll children who have lost a parent, a sibling or a close family member.

Carroll Hospice is sponsoring the three-day bereavement camp next month at the Hashawha Environmental Appreciation Center in Westminster.

Counselors will weave heart-healing grief sessions for children into art, drama, music and sports lessons.

"Children can work out their anger and guilt in a lighter, nonstressful, nonthreatening atmosphere, with an emphasis on camp activities," said Susan P. Hannon, bereavement counselor at Carroll Hospice and the camp's organizer.

"Sharing a common experience with someone your own age can provide priceless lessons. Each child will see another child who is working through grief and going on with life."

The camp is named for T. R. O'Farrell III, an 11-year-old West

minster Boy Scout who was killed in a traffic accident in December. It will give 20 children the chance to continue their "grief work" with peers and an adult buddy, "a private counselor who will share the story of what happened to the child."

Ms. Hannon said campers will help each other deal with "the heavy stuff" that accompanies a death -- a traumatic time when children can get lost in a family's grief process.

"It can get tricky when several people in the same household are grieving," Ms. Hannon said.

If one parent dies, the surviving parent can be too distraught to comfort a child, who doesn't want to upset his remaining parent with tears.

"Sometimes the loss is so devastating, the kids are the forgotten mourners," Ms. Hannon said. "Just because the child goes to play in the sandbox after the funeral doesn't mean he is not processing what has happened."

Ms. Hannon cited, as an example, a young man who told her that he refused to cry at the loss of his mother.

When she asked him whether he was experiencing any of several physiological problems associated with repressed grief, he realized he was shedding tears in other ways.

"Whether he cried or not, he was grieving anyway," she said. "You can stuff grief down and hide it, but it's going to come out. You can put it on hold, but when it hits you have to deal with it."

Ms. Hannon thinks most campers will be 10- to 12-year-olds. She will establish a group for younger children if the numbers warrant, and may also include a session for parents.

Several teens have volunteered to be buddies.

"Teens dealing with grief sometimes think they are too old for camp," she said. "But by helping somebody, they work on their own grief as well."

For many children, the time frame of their loss is irrelevant. Every occasion in their growing years renews the sense of loss, and grief spurts "smack them in the face."

"Parents assume that the kid is OK after a year," she said. "Then, spontaneous crying resurfaces like the grief is all new again."

The completion of comforting rituals does not always mean that a child can move on with life, Ms Hannon said.

"A child experiences loss at different developmental milestones that the deceased parent is not there to see. They need to express emotion about their loss at different stages, and grieve through each period."

In addition, she said, "The structure of the family changes, and there is a social reaction," she said. "All of a sudden, the child feels different, an oddity, the only one with one parent."

Camp T. R. will help children to see their grief experiences as normal and validate the "natural memory embraces" they will feel all their lives, Ms. Hannon said.

The camp's leaders trained with Dana Cable, a psychologist and grief counselor, last week.

Carroll Hospice still needs volunteers to serve as buddies. Ms. Hannon's work with grieving children allows her to promise buddies a rewarding experience.

"I really learn so much," she said. "Children come in ready to talk and they teach me good life lessons."

Carroll Hospice plans a reunion for the participating children and two follow-up sessions with volunteers after the camp concludes.

"Workers will have a lot to process," Ms. Hannon said. "That will be a lot of grief and loss to be around."

The camp will be from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. June 22 through June 24. It is open free to children 7 to 18. Carroll Hospice will help arrange car pool transportation. Information: 876-8044.

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