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    Helping Children Grieve

    By Deborah Schwing, LMFT, LPCC–

    Loss is part of life. When children and teens experience the death of someone close to them, their ability to cope with, and make sense of, the loss is different than that of an adult.

    Over the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of seeing countless children and teens transform from being sad and withdrawn to being bright eyed and hopeful—all in one weekend.

    That’s where a youth grief camp comes in. Youth grief camps are free weekend retreats for youth ages 7 to 17 that combine traditional fun camp activities with therapeutic grief support.

    Justin’s Story

    Last year at camp, Justin (not his real name), a shy 13-year-old boy whose father died by suicide, arrived for the camp weekend.

    On Friday, the first afternoon of camp, Justin and six other 13-year-old boys, along with their adult Big Buddies, settled into their cabin for the weekend. While rolling out their sleeping bags onto the bunk beds, they discovered a unique commonality—each of their fathers had died. The sense of isolation that accompanies losing someone close vanished. Kids need to be around peers who understand them.

    Kids also need adults who are available and supportive. Last year, in my role as a Camp Director, I had the honor of quietly observing Justin, and many kids like him, gain an indescribable inner strength as a result of courageously naming and acknowledging the grief they carried with them with every day.

    Kids need to dip in and out of their grief. As I noticed with Justin, it was both difficult and a relief to be able to speak aloud how much he missed his father. I was constantly amazed at the ability of these kids to go from talking about the recent score of the Giants game to blurting out, “I hate having to be the one to always take the garbage out since my dad died,” and the other boys chiming in, “Yeah, I gotta do that too.”

    Throughout the Camp weekend, traditional camp activities are interwoven into each day. This is important, because kids need activities that engage them.

    It was a delight to see Justin discover that he had a natural talent for archery. After an introductory lesson, Justin stretched the bow back, arms steady, eyes focused. As he released the bow, watching it sail in an arc through the air, a smile lit up his face. The bow landed on the target’s center! His sense of joy and accomplishment was palpable.

    Resilience and Transformation

    Despite being in the midst of grief and the resultant life changes that accompany a death in the family, kids find great relief in being able to focus on something that interests them.

    They are also resilient. I watched Justin and the other campers vacillate from expressing sorrow, frustration and anger in one moment to caring, silliness and laughter in a game of pool volleyball in the next moment. 

    If kids have supportive peers, understanding adults and a safe and fun environment that includes plenty of outdoor activities along with structured therapeutic groups in which to express and understand their feelings, their grief will naturally transform. They will grow stronger, more mature and more capable of finding their way through life’s inherent challenges.

    Hospice by the Bay, a regional non-profit organization, is partnering with Comfort Zone Camp to provide By the Bay Camp – for Grieving Children & Teens. It’s free, for youth ages 7 to 17, and will be held the weekend of August 10–12 at the CYO Camp Retreat Center in Occidental, in Sonoma County, CA.

    To register a camper or for more information, go online (www.hospicebythebay.org/types-of-care/grief-support/by-the-bay-camp), (www.comfortzonecamp.org/event/985). Registration is open now through Monday, July 9.

    Deborah Schwing, LMFT, LPCC, is the Bereavement Services Manager for Hospice by the Bay.