By Lisa Shrewsberry
Who is the person you’ve come to count on, more than anyone else in the world? Who always has your back, and to whom do you turn, without hesitation, in a crisis? Imagine losing that person, slowly or suddenly, and the attendant jolt of emotion followed by emptiness.
Now, imagine being a child.
Children are especially vulnerable to dealing with issues of death and loss; many are still developing their ability to cope with stressful situations when they are faced with perhaps the greatest emotional toll taken, the death of a parent, grandparent or close friend.
Hospice of Southern West Virginia Social Services Coordinator Harold Dobbins has counseled kids or referred them to other professionals after a significant loss. To facilitate their ability to share feelings with others who have suffered such absence would be invaluable, he knew, and it had been a long time dream of the organization known for sticking with families through loss to be able to offer a program tailored to the unique needs of children.
“We’ve had our bereavement program for adults in place. For years, it was just a matter of making sure we were able to do a quality program for children,” explained Dobbins introducing this year’s Camp Hope — a safe and secure two-day camping experience where children who have lost immediate family members or close friends can in their own way share their story of grief in order to move forward into healing.
The camp, happening Wednesday, August 7 - Thursday, August 8 at the Cabins at Pine Haven, Beaver, W.Va., is open to the first 30 qualified registrants and is entirely free. A team of licensed and trained professionals numbering near 70 will carry off the program, guiding children ages 8 through 17 through scavenger hunting, story-telling, music, writing and arts and crafts experiences designed for the development of coping skills within an atmosphere of fun and adventure. Children accepted to participate must have experienced the death of a parent or guardian, grandparent or guardian, or a best friend. The camp will engage children in relevant activities from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each day.
“We began our research two years ago for putting the camp together,” Dobbins detailed, including working with other children’s bereavement programs, like that at Huntington Hospice. Huntington’s program used a therapeutic board game called Healing Hearts, one that encourages children to talk about their feelings. HSWV developed their camp curriculum loosely around the different “stops” represented on the board game, those very real destinations called Land of Loss and Land of Memories.
“It isn’t really the ‘stages of grief’ but goals of what you want the kids to do. Land of Loss is about getting them to acknowledge and talk about the death. Some older kids kind of deny or won’t talk about it,” Dobbins clarified.
“It is very common for children not to process what happened,” Dobbins stated. “Much depends on the child’s age. All children grieve the same as an adult grieves; they mourn.” At 6 - 9 years of age, children recognize the finality of death, but they don’t necessarily know how to deal with it. “They are afraid they are going to lose another family member. They may regress in behavior and return to sucking their thumb, for example.” Many ages 5 - 12 have anger, which may or may not be expressed, or guilt that something they did wrong somehow caused the death, as irrational as this may seem to adults. “If I hadn’t done something to upset Dad, he wouldn’t have had the accident,” Dobbins gave as example, adding that children, without intervention, may be aggressive towards family, friends or pets and may withdraw and hide their feelings, experiencing stark personality change and plummeting academic scores. He, along with his Hospice colleagues and supporters, are looking to Camp Hope to make a difference for area children.
In the camp’s equivalent to Land of Feelings, children will be given “permission” to feel sad, lonely and angry — often unexpressed internal struggles children may feel ashamed about when they exhibit them, but necessary paths to travel toward acceptance and healing. “This is one of the lands where we’ll be using a Native American theme,” said Dobbins. Enter Clemenceau Allen, a Native American of Cherokee descent from the Raleigh County area and the story of Mia and Mr. Red Feather.
Allen is volunteering for Camp Hope, dressed in traditional Cherokee attire and reading the book by Joyce Marie Sheldon, “Mia and Mr. Red Feather” to the children and teaching them about Native American customs. It is just one of the visual and experiential elements purposefully built into the camp’s curriculum, including a tribal dance at the camp closing and a balloon release.
“The book was here when I started,” said HSWV Bereavement Support Specialist Jewell Field. “I used it for a couple of children I’d been doing one-on-one counseling with.” Field decided to incorporate the story into the camp program and to seek Allen’s assistance in authenticating it. The story recounts an experience in the voice of child, Mia, as her friend Mr. Red Feather is dying. To Field, the nature and theme came alive best with an Appalachian American Indian narrator. Allen will also be taking part in some of the scavenger hunt activities, which Field likens to “The Amazing Race” in style.
While future camp plans include overnight accommodations for a full 4 - 5 days, the first camp will serve as a vehicle to reach those children who may have never encountered someone to open up to about their story.
Camp Hope has been funded entirely through private donations, but HSWV will continue to accept donations to enhance future camps and broaden their reach with the program.
“The concept of ‘good grief’ is grieving in and of itself. It’s working through those issues. Bad grief is when you don’t address it. Camp Hope will provide an embracing atmosphere, where we have fun, but crying is not going to be looked at as a bad thing,” Dobbins stated.
For more information on Camp Hope, contact HSWV at 304-255-6404 or visit www .hospiceofsouthernwv.org
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