JOLIET – Kathy Cherven passed the bucket around the circle of children. It was Damerion Morris’ turn. He reached inside and pulled out a strip of paper.
“Anger,” read Damerion, of Broadview.
“Oh, that’s a good one,” said Cherven, a bereavement counselor with Joliet Area Community Hospice. “Let’s talk about anger.”
Conjure up images of summer camp and one might think of swimming, campfires and “Red Rover,” not sadness and mourning. But under the canopy of playing games, making crafts and swimming, grieving children at the 2014 Journey Children’s Grief Camp learned to verbalize and cope with their loses.
Fifteen children, ages 7 to 13, participated in the camp, which ran from June 23 to 26. Some children attend more than once and that’s fine, said Mary Ann Burns, bereavement coordinator at Joliet Area Community Hospice since 2003.
“A grief camp,” Burns said, “is a safe place where youngsters who have lost a loved one meet other children who have lost a loved one. They are not alone in their grief.”
Chloe Szczepanski, 11, of Lockport, after playing a yarn toss game on Day One, summed it up this way: “We’re all connected.”
Her mother, Lynda Szczepanski, said Chloe, who is not one to show her emotions, had several losses at once: her grandfather and her dog died, and a big sister left for college. Both Lynda and Chloe participate in other JACH bereavement programs, which is how they heard about camp.
“Her counselor thought she could become more open if she was around other kids her own age that had losses,” Lynda Szczepanski said.
During the four-day camp, children played with “feeling face” cards, labeled emotions with colors, created collages, sculpted, released emotions by throwing clay against a plastic-covered wall, painted memory bricks, drew grief maps, fashioned support shields, wrote letters to loved ones, decorated memory boxes, selected scents that reminded them of loved ones, whispered secrets to a therapy dog and participated in a balloon release ceremony.
“Adults don’t always realize that children grieve, too, and that there are so many emotions attached to grief. It’s not just sad or glad,” Burns said. “There may be anxiety, vulnerability, fear of the future and jealousy that another child still has her dad. Maybe a child has lost a cousin and he’s angry about that.”
The children also learned how to set boundaries in the grief, as well as to respect the boundaries of others. Julie Blackburn, bereavement counselor and art therapist, let the know children it’s good to ask permission before hugging and that they also had the right to refuse a hug.
“Sometimes we don’t want to be touched and that’s OK," Blackburn said
Burns said JACH started participating in children’s grief camps in 2004 – partnering with Camp Fire U.S.A. and Stronghold in Oregon, Illinois – to provide a six-day overnight camp for the Treasure of Life Grief Camp at Stronghold following a tornado in downstate Illinois.
The camp continued until 2010 when JACH began one in Joliet. Since 2011, Joliet Area Community Hospice has partnered with Galowich Family YMCA to offer the grief camp.
Jeri Smith, JACH volunteer coordinator for eight years, has sent her son Cooper, 8, to the children’s grief camp two years in a row. Last year, Cooper’s maternal grandmother died. This year, it was his paternal grandfather. Cooper was close to both his grandparents, Smith said.
“He even helped give his grandmother her insulin shots,” she said.
Last year, Cooper didn’t discuss his sorrow. Smith said the only time Cooper mentioned missing his grandmother was during those times Jeri was disciplining him. Compounding the challenge of helping Cooper open up was the fact Smith was grieving, too.
Smith thought grief camp was a good idea for Cooper and she was right. By the time camp had ended, Cooper could talk about his grandmother. It was Cooper’s idea to return to camp this year.
Smith feels Cooper has learned valuable skills that will benefit him the rest of his life in any “death” situation, including divorce and job loss. For now, Jeri is thankful Cooper is handling the deaths of his grandparents better.
“We talk about grandpa and grandma being in heaven with God now and how we spent lots of good times with them,” she said.
During the “Burdens of Grief” game that Cherven led, the children, sitting in a circle with the counselors, discussed their various emotions. Inside the middle lay a stack of different sizes of rocks.
After Demerion selected “anger,” Jesse Frederiksen, 8, of New Lenox chose a large rock to illustrate how anger felt during the initial days of his loss.
“And how does it feel now?” Cherven asked.
Jesse picked up a pebble and grinned.
"I got over it," he said.