- Because children grieve differently from adults, they can benefit from bereavement support tailored to their specific needs.
- Grief camps for kids help children process grief and loss through group and one-on-one counseling, yes, but also through play and art.
- You can observe the power of children’s grief camps in the short documentary film “Yaren and the Sun.”
- If a child can’t attend grief camp, important adults in their lives can still help them by providing an environment of honesty and acceptance.
Child therapists know that children grieve differently from adults, and they also understand how a child’s unique grieving process might be overlooked in the midst of significant loss. Children who experience the death of someone close to them are often surrounded by adult suffering. They might not want to burden the grownups in their lives with their own pain, sensing the atmosphere of distress. They might not have the words to express their complex emotions, becoming frustrated and angry at their verbal limitations. They might feel self-conscious in the company of friends, and begin to withdraw socially. They might fear losing someone else, and exhibit signs of separation anxiety. And they might feel that they’re not allowed to experience happy moments, to laugh and cry back-to-back.
And yet it’s important that children get a chance to inhabit the full range of their emotions, so they can figure out how to manage their grief in the long-term. Children’s grief camps are environments dedicated to school-aged kids (usually ages 6-17) who have experienced loss. They are often nonprofit programs, so families pay little or nothing for the opportunity to attend camp. And they allow a grieving child to step away from what can be a bewildering situation at home and enter a supportive community where their experience is central.
How Grief Camps Help Children
Imagine a 9-year-old girl whose mother dies after a long illness. In the wake of this crushing loss, a grief camp might benefit the girl in a number of crucial ways.
Helping to normalize feelings. At grief camp, bereaved children are invited to talk openly and to ask questions. Compassionate staff members are trained to meet a wide range of emotions with love and acceptance. No one tries to “fix” the kids. They just allow them to be, lifting the burden of expectations.
Connecting grieving children to their peers. At grief camp, everyone has lost someone close to them. Kids can find positive, supportive relationships with each other and feel understood after similar chasms opened up in their lives.
Offering specialized therapies. Children might participate in group sharing exercises or have one-on-one sessions with grief counselors. Professional grief support can help children find the words to express their feelings and develop the coping skills they need to integrate their lifelong grief into their daily lives.
Letting kids play. Kids are still kids, even when they’re grieving the death of a significant person in their world. They don’t need to feel guilty for having fun with their friends. Traditional camp activities can let some light in while still allowing space for pain. Creative pursuits like arts and crafts, music, and drama can also serve as an entry point for children who have trouble accessing their emotions.
Helping children regain confidence. Losing a loved one can put anyone on unstable ground, especially children. Life can feel scary and uncertain to kids who have experienced death firsthand. But through camp challenges, children can begin to counter their insecurity with a sense of mastery and personal growth.
Providing the solace of nature. Grief specialists understand that the natural world can be a source of healing and comfort to people of all ages. Grief camps tend to integrate nature walks and exploration into their curriculum. They may even use animal therapy to help young people feel less alone.
Guiding families at-large. Grief camp counselors can offer insight to adult caregivers about how they can best support children through their grieving process.
“Yaren and the Sun” Documentary
Last month The New York Times showcased a beautiful, 18-minute documentary about a summer camp in Belgium called Missing You. The film captures grieving children, many of whom have lost their parents, in their private moments at this extraordinary grief camp. The scenes are both heartbreaking and inspiring. Filmmakers Renate Raman and Joren Slaets follow a little girl named Yaren as she expresses her grief in ways that are both direct (communicating her feelings to counselors and friends) and indirect (lighting a candle for her dead mother, making a “remembrance boat” out of paper).
Watching the film, you can feel how important it is for children’s grief to come out of isolation and find a community. The same friends Yaren laughs with can also relate to her sadness, putting their little arms around her when she cries. And the film is particularly moving because as a viewer you’re at such an intimate distance, yet unseen by these children, almost as if you’re the ghost of a dead parent observing your son or daughter’s resilience, honoring their pain and taking pride in their strength.
How You Can Approximate the Grief Camp Experience for Kids
Not all children and teens in mourning will have access to a grief camp like Missing You. As an extreme example, think of children and families who are still in the midst of traumatic experiences like war or forced relocation, when they might lose loved ones but need to compartmentalize their emotions for the sake of survival. It can be next to impossible to hit pause during ongoing crises so children can fully experience and process their loss.
But caregivers can still try to offer the psychological necessities that grieving kids need. They can tell the truth about death, even if the truth must be revealed in layers. They can be available for questions. And they can provide unconditional love, security, and acceptance, so children know that there’s no such thing as a wrong feeling when it comes to grief.