LETTING GO OF THE PAIN AT BEREAVEMENT CAMP, YOUNGSTERS BEGIN THE LONG JOURNEY FROM ANGUISH TO ACCEPTANCE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Bereavement camps are flourishing because they meet a need, says Marilyn Coffey, the hospice's bereavement-care program assistant. "There's always been this need, and once someone suggested a way to do something like a camp, everyone got on the bandwagon."

Children who attended this year's camp were referred by family members or guidance counselors, or came through a hospice support group. The camp was open to any bereaved child from the county; leftover spaces were filled by children from elsewhere in Maryland, Ms. Coffey said.

"Nabe -- pronounced NAH-BEE -- is Korean for butterfly," Ms. Asplund says. "We work with the children about what's happened to them. Like butterflies, they have changed when they lose someone, but they can find hope."

During the camp, 77 trained counselors, including hospice volunteers, nurses and social workers, were each assigned a child to follow through their activities -- swimming, canoeing, fitness challenges, as well as grieving "therapy." Counselors not assigned a child helped "cabin-sit" at night and supervised athletic activities.

Said Ms. Asplund: "Our [large] child-staff ratio is because of the seriousness of the work. Children have many burdens when someone dies."

Many of the camp counselors had experience in helping people deal with grief, Ms. Asplund said. Those that didn't received three hours of training from the hospice. All had lost a loved one themselves.

"I felt like blaming myself. My brother had a seizure, and I didn't know if he was playing or not."

"I'm mad at God because he could've healed up my Dad."

The campers were talking about what a family member's death had done to them.

Peter Wilcox, a licensed psychotherapist and director of the Severna Park Professional Counseling Center, told the children: "Feelings [of sadness] are real normal. We probably will go through them again and again." When he misses his son, who died about eight years ago, he said, "I cry and feel better."

Changes in life are natural, like the changes a caterpillar goes through to become a butterfly, the therapist told the children.

"All of nature is filled with ongoing, beautiful change," he said. "Some kinds of changes are very difficult, they're painful. If we don't deal with the feelings, they come out in the way we act. We hope you'll leave here with ways to feel better. You can talk about your feelings, write them down or draw them."

In workbooks called "When Someone Very Special Dies" the children drew pictures and answered questions about their feelings about death. "Many different things cause people to die. But people can't die because of anything we think or say," the book said. "Draw some things that cause death."

J. J. drew pictures of Georgie, his mother's boyfriend, lying in bed, with J. J.'s mother nearby pushing him, saying "Wake up, wake up!" He drew Georgie, with a spider in his head and a butterfly in his tummy.

Saturday afternoon, the children wrote a "burden," something worrying them, on a strip of paper. That night, they would burn the papers in a campfire.

One child wrote: "The man who hit my father [in a car accident] got off the hook."

Another wrote that he "worried about not being taken care of," now that his father was dead.

But one boy raged: "You think [burning a paper] is gonna take it away from us? This is womanly!"

It was this sort of helpless fury that Peggy Snow, bereavement coordinator of the Hospice at Anne Arundel Medical Center, addressed in discussions about anger that afternoon.

She told the children: "It's OK to feel mad or angry when someone dies. But it's best to express your anger in ways that don't hurt anyone or anything." She suggested healthy outlets -- exercise, listening to music, talking, punching your pillow.

After several afternoon "sessions," the children were ready to play. They canoed, they swam, they played volleyball and hiked. Counselor Bill Carrieri sat by the dock, where several youngsters fished for crabs, and reflected on what made the camp work.

"The best thing about this camp is that you get to roll around in your feelings, really talk about them for more than a few minutes. And you do it in a safe place."

Over the campfire that night, as sparks from the fire lit the rough wood benches, Ms. Asplund spoke of giving up burdens, of letting go of pain. She collected the slips of paper in a basket and dumped them in the fire.

Some campers told the group about what was on their piece of paper.

"I hope I don't get the same disease my sister did," whispered one 9-year-old. Said a teen-ager: "My friend and I had a bad fight and we never made up, and then he died."

Steve Ferris, who had lost his father, said his burden was fear that his "Mom would die."

An adult counselor, tears streaking his face, said his burden also was fear. "I don't want anybody who knew my wife to forget her," he said.

The smoke floated up. "Mine is already burnt," said Steve. Behind his black glasses, his small face relaxed.

Afterward, the campers gobbled s'mores and sang noisy songs.

Early Sunday, the children wrapped themselves in bright cloth and curled up on the grass. These small bundles were their "cocoons," said Ms. Asplund, safe places where they could retreat to think about someone or something comforting, where they could find inner strength.

As the magical sounds of "The Nutcracker" wafted from a tape player, across the field danced a butterfly -- a huge, human-size butterfly -- Nabe, splendid in purple and gold.

Dr. Constance Read, a psychologist and bereavement counselor for the hospice, flapped her wings and spoke comfortingly about the way grief can precede beauty.

Ms. Asplund helped the children connect the loss they had suffered with this gorgeous creature.

"This camp isn't going to fix [your grief]," she said. "We can't fix it in three days. The memory of that love brings smiles and tears -- sun and rain. You can't have happiness without sadness. But if you go through the rain, like we did Friday night, you wake up to a glorious new day. That's what happens when you cry -- you'll find the rainbow; you'll feel better."

"Now," she said, "like butterflies, the change is complete. I want you to see yourselves move out into the sunlight."

The children unrolled themselves and ran around the field, holding their cloth cocoons to their shoulders like small Nabes.

The fabrics shimmered in the light: smooth mint cottons, shiny silky pinks, sheer blues.

The children exploded with energy. They yelled "yaaaayyyyyy!" They yelled "tweet, tweet!" and "wiz" and "up, up and away!"

One zoomed around like an airplane. Others flapped their arms like butterflies, or hurled themselves upward.

Fabric swirled. Children sang, their faces to the sun.

Near the end of camp, the children gathered by the water for the flower-throwing. The carnations were meant to symbolize each camper's farewell to Camp Nabe, Ms. Asplund said, but many of the youngsters said the blossoms represented the person who had died.

Some children couldn't bear to throw their flowers at all, and carried them around the rest of the afternoon. This, too, was all right, Ms. Asplund said. They just weren't ready.

When families arrived, they joined the children to plant a tree as a sign of new life and hope. The adult relatives then received written evaluations by counselors on each child's problems and progress, which would be followed by individual sessions with each parent a week later.

Last of all, everyone formed a circle to release one large heart-shaped balloon, which they'd inscribed earlier with the names of their deceased.

Ms. Asplund had explained: "My husband died in his sleep and I didn't get to say 'I love you' for the last time. Maybe you didn't get to say goodbye, and [writing on the balloon] is your chance to do it."

The children stood in the hot sun, clutching parents or siblings. Parents clutched children, and everyone cried. They wept from loss and from the relief of knowing it was OK to cry.

"His spirit's going to fly up," whispered Mrs. Sevanick to Anya and Daniel, who had returned with her for the last moments of camp.

Released, the balloon soared, a bright speck in a blue sky.

A week after camp, some Nabe campers had gone from quiet and controlled children to those who cried constantly, parents told Ms. Asplund. Other children had finally begun to talk about their feelings.

"One father told me he didn't think camp helped his daughter accept her loss because now she was crying," Ms. Asplund said. "But this is normal. Some children who kept things hidden at camp are given permission to let it out, and they finally express their feelings."

Said Mrs. Sevanick: "What I noticed most was that Anya was able to let go of some anger toward the world in general, for the unfairness of the loss of her dad."

In her workbook, Anya wrote that camp had helped her because "I could talk about it."

"I'm a lot less mad," said Shane Kearney. "I know it wasn't my sister's fault she died. The butterfly stuff doesn't mean anything to me, but the talking does."

Shane's parents, Frank and Debbie Kearney, said the camp changed their lives.

"He was 6 when his sister Shannon died in 1988," said Mr. Kearney. "For a long time we felt like we lost two kids. He has been to psychologists, psychiatrists. He'd gone from being an A student to failing. We were about at our wits' end."

Almost immediately after camp, Mr. Kearney reported, Shane was "back to the child he was. It seems like having someone of your own age to speak to makes the difference. I feel like I owe them a life. They gave me back a son."

The Hospice of the Chesapeake accepts referrals for bereavement camp from families and guidance counselors. Anne Arundel County residents have preference. Send requests for next summer's session to Bereavement Center, Hospice of the Chesapeake, 8424 Veterans Highway, Millersville, Md. 21108.

ANGELA WINTER NEY is a staff writer for The Sun.

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