Children learn to face grief


Nineteen children delighted in long hikes and late-night talks at Camp T.R. last weekend. They made a banner and many new friends. They wrote "Growing Through Grief" books and pulled each other's memories from a heart-shaped box.

The children who came to the bereavement camp, sponsored by Carroll Hospice, all knew they couldn't make grief go away, but they hoped to make it more bearable.

"I stayed up late last night and talked about why I came here," said 9-year-old Katelyn, whose 23-year-old brother died in a car accident. "I told stories about my brother."

She caressed her brother's baseball cap as she recalled the one-on-one basketball games when a tall boy held his little sister up to the net so that she could make a basket.

"I know this camp is named for a little boy who died," Katelyn said.

Carroll Hospice organized a day camp last year in memory of T. R. O'Farrell, an 11-year-old Westminster child who died in a traffic accident in 1993. This year, campers stayed overnight in the cabins at Hashawha Environmental Center.

After the first night, Katelyn said, she knew "it is always better to talk about it." She recalled the details from her brother's death: the police car waiting in the family driveway and her parents' reactions.

"The first year, after it happened, I was afraid to talk about it, because it made my mom sad, and she was already crying a lot," she said.

At Camp T.R., all of the campers -- they range in age from 6 to 15 -- had tears to share. And a friend to listen.

"My buddy is helping me, too," said Katelyn. "I can talk to her

about everything."

Each camper was assigned a buddy, a constant presence throughout the three days of activities. The buddies -- teens, young adults and grandparents -- volunteered to help the children with their grief. Susan P. Hannon, bereavement counselor and camp director, trained and counseled the buddies.

"We are here to help the children walk through their grief, to let them progress and catch them when they fall," she said. "But, we can't make grief go away."

Ann Harriman, 32, had several losses as she grew up, and she volunteered for the camp because she thought she "could help a child who is going through the same experiences."

Joe Ford, 27, lost a sister to suicide. He was a buddy to a 12-year-old who is trying to cope with a suicide in his family.

"We partnered up to help each other," said Mr. Ford. "He helped me as much as I helped him."

Elinor Causey found one small challenge in her buddy.

"He is only 7, and his mom died four years ago," she said. "He is like a can that needs to be opened, and we are looking for a special key."

Megan Gardner, 15 and a buddy to a child who had lost his mother and infant brother, said the campers' stories were heartbreaking.

"These kids are so young and have so much to deal with," she said.

Whether the deaths were sudden or expected, the children all needed time to work through their grief.

"We are learning to dance with our feelings," said Chris, a smiling, freckled-face 8-year-old whose father was murdered last TTC winter. "If you are sad, you kind of just hang around and don't move. I am learning to dance in a circle with my friends here."

Death often clouds the future for surviving children. Terry, 8, lost her father to acquired immune deficiency syndrome a few months ago. Her mother and baby brother also have AIDS, and she is living with an elderly aunt.

"Terry told me her mother had a long talk with her and she knows what will probably happen," said Augustine Stith, Terry's buddy. "I didn't expect a little girl would know about all this."

Ms. Stith, a social worker and counselor, hopes to organize a bereavement camp in Baltimore this summer.

"The best way to learn how to do this is to be with the children," she said.

Terry and another child, who also lost her father, became inseparable friends at Camp T.R. They walked hand-in-hand to meals and on hikes along Hashawha's trails. Occasionally, they stopped to pick flowers for one another.

A rainy weekend forced organizers to improvise with the schedule but did little to dampen camper enthusiasm.

"We had a make-believe fire and made a web with red yarn," said Katelyn. "We all had to hold tight to the web. If someone lets go, it means they need help."

Each child tacked a memory to the Camp T.R. 1995 flag, which will hang in the hospice office in Westminster. On the blue felt banner, the children pasted feathers and pine cones the had found on hikes, and included woven friendship bracelets, pictures of hearts and a paper truck made by a child whose father died in a traffic accident.

"The banner is a catalyst to the grief process," said Ms. Hannon. "It is a way of expressing feelings and validating memories."

On Sunday, the last day of the camp, the children and their buddies, all dressed in bright teal Camp T.R. T-shirts, gathered around a fish pond with bottles of bubbles in their hands.

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