Camp helps grieving children heal

June 26, 1994|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Staff Writer

As he worked through the pages of his "Growing Through Grief" book, 10-year-old Andrew drew a blank. He couldn't pull a picture of his father from his memory.

A grief counselor wrapped her arm around Andrew's rigid shoulder and gently elicited from the boy a memory of the man who died after a heart attack two years ago.

hTC "How do you picture your dad in your mind?" she asked in a soft voice.

Tension eased and the child's expression melted into a bright smile. "I see him playing baseball with me," he said.

He grabbed felt-tipped markers and began to color a baseball diamond.

Art, music and drama therapy, interspersed with swimming and lively games, helped Andrew and 21 other Carroll County children deal with the grief that has invaded their young lives. The activities, planned by bereavement counselors, took place last week at the three-day Camp T. R., sponsored by Carroll Hospice. The camp is at Hashawha Environmental Center, north of Westminster.

For some children, the loss was as recent as last month. Others are still trying to resolve a death that occurred several years ago. All of them could cite the exact time and date that changed their lives, and many knew every detail of the deaths.

"I remember I hugged my brother hard the day before he died," said Joey, 10. "Sometimes, I am scared that I might be in an accident like him."

Creating their own grief books gave them a chance to "express the whole scope of feelings from before, during and after the loss," said Susan P. Hannon, bereavement counselor and camp organizer. "Children process loss differently from adults. They don't have the same cognitive or emotional skills. Time doesn't always resolve grief for them."

The book provided pages for drawing what happened and describing personal feelings that followed their loss.

Nicole, 12, sketched the car accident that killed her father. She drew a tear-stained face on the next page.

"I cried for a long time," she wrote. "I didn't go outside or talk to anyone."

At the bereavement camp, Nicole met other children who could relate to her experience. And, like the other campers, she had a buddy who would share her stories and memories.

Some buddies were adult volunteers; others were teens -- many of whom had also felt the pain of loss.

"Meeting people who have dealt with the same situation helped me to deal with mine," said Nicole.

Selena Brewer, 14, said she liked working as a buddy to the children.

"When they talk, you have to listen," she said.

Dan Schaeffer, 22, who has muscular dystrophy, lost his younger brother last year to the disease. An art major at Western Maryland College, Mr. Schaeffer wanted to lend his time and talents to the children.

"Arts and crafts help you express yourself," he said. "These kids are opening up a little, but it takes time."

He taught one 14-year-old the intricacies of string art.

"I just learned yesterday," said Geoff as he wove string into a bracelet. "This is a great hobby."

Each day started with memory sharing. Counselors wove heart-healing into the camp, named for T. R. O'Farrell, an 11-year-old Westminster Boy Scout who died in a traffic accident in December. T. R.'s father, Tom O'Farrell, met with the campers Wednesday and showed them the car he and his son were restoring.

"His dad told us T. R. wanted to be an Eagle Scout and that's why our camp shirts have an eagle on the back," said Carrie, 11, who volunteered to work at the camp with her twin, Megan. The girls lost their father to cancer four years ago.

"I remember when my father died and I felt so sad," said Carrie. "I want to tell these kids you will still have that person in your heart, but you will get over the sadness. It helps to meet people who know where you have been."

While campers worked on memory mobiles, Carrie and Megan made colorful paper flowers. Soon, everyone was wearing a paper rose.

"We came here to do stuff to help other kids, because people helped us," Megan said.

Group sessions gave the campers an outlet for their grief and a chance to talk about their memories.

"Sometimes, the memory pops up and hugs you," Ms. Hannon told the children. "Let it out. Dance with your feelings. Don't keep them locked inside of you."

The last page of the grief book is marked "How I will feel one day." Carolina, 9, drew a golden angel on that page. Crystal, 10, didn't draw a picture under the words. She simply wrote, "I do not know."

All the campers scribbled a note or picture on a large paper that covered a picnic table. At the end of the day, each tore a piece off and carried it home.

"We validated everyone's loss here," said Ms. Hannon. "That is the idea behind the camp."

Ms. Hannon encouraged the campers to exchange phone numbers and addresses. She is planning an overnight camp next year.

"Campfires and lights-out conversations will give the children even more time to talk to each other," she said. She also praised the many volunteers who helped run the camp.

"So many people took vacation days to do this," she said.

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