‘It’s Just SO Special’

Children Navigate the Journey Through Grief at Camp Jamie

By Susan Guynn | Posted on 07.08.13 – Feature, People & Places

They gather in a group and speak about things they have never told anyone else before, about the hurt, confusion and fear that a child feels after the death of a loved one. They share tears, laughs and then a few more tears.

One boy talks about the death of his infant sister, whom he never met.

“I wish she was here to annoy me,” he says.

They were just kids doing the things kids do when their carefree lives were struck by the death of someone they loved. Death is part of life, but when you are 9 years old and it snatches your mother, father, grandparent or sibling from your life forever, making sense of it all can seem impossible. “Young children don’t understand death, the universality and finality of death,” says Denise Watterson, a bereavement services coordinator for Hospice of Frederick County.

To help youth process their grief, Hospice hosts Camp Jamie, an annual weekend at Skycroft Conference Center near Middletown where children from ages 6 through 14 learn grief-coping skills. This year, 17 children participated in the 25th Camp Jamie.

To participate, children who meet the age requirements and have lost a loved one within the past year simply need to live in Frederick County. There is no cost for kids to attend, Watterson says. Funding is provided by individual and community donations, as well as fundraisers and grants from the Community Foundation of Frederick County.

Big Buddy, Little Buddy

David’s mother died of cancer. Hayden and Juliet’s father died of complications from cancer. Kenzie and her grandfather were very close and did lots of things together, like playing with Lego blocks. When he died, her heart was broken and her mind worried that because he did so many things with her he didn’t get enough rest.

At the weekend-long camp, the grieving children are paired with a Big Buddy, an older volunteer who provides a listening ear, encouragement and hugs when needed. The Big Buddy also shares grief experiences and participates in all group activities with the Little Buddy. From fun and games to sharing circles, the goal of all activities is to give the children tools and strategies they can use to process their feelings.

Sharing in a nonjudgmental environment creates a bond between the Little and Big Buddy, which is the key to the success of the camp experience. It also reassures the children that their emotions—anger, sadness, guilt—are all normal, Watterson says. “We don’t know what feelings these kids are stuffing inside and carrying around. Children’s imaginations are so powerful. Sometimes they put on themselves great guilt because of something they perceived or imagined [related to the loved one’s death].”

The children learn that fears are OK, too, Watterson says. Some fear that another loved one will die. Many kids try to hold in those feelings because talking about them or about the loved one at home will upset a parent or sibling. And at Camp Jamie, they learn it’s fine to laugh again. “Parents have told us that, after camp, their kids said they learned it’s OK to cry or their daughter is smiling again. It gives them a chance to release some of their feelings and grieve,” Watterson says. “We all [grieve] differently but we can support one another.”

Watterson provides that lesson with a game where all the buddies put on cardboard beaks and pretend to be geese. On the bottom of each beak is a colored dot they can’t see. Without using words, and while honking like geese to communicate, the buddies find the other “geese” who have the same color on their beak and group up. The game shows the children that by working together and supporting one another, they can go forward, Watterson explains.

“If kids at this age can learn coping mechanisms and work through them, it will help them as adults,” says Molly Aitken of Frederick, a nurse at Frederick Memorial Hospital and also at Camp Jamie. “It’s important to me that people realize [death] is a phase of life. This is a place for them to talk about it and process it.”

“There is a special chemistry that happens at the camp,” says long-time volunteer Linda Brennan of Middletown. Her husband, Bill Brennan, has been leading the fishing activity at Camp Jamie for more than a dozen years. Brennan’s own daughter attended Camp Jamie when her grandmother died in 1999. Last year, both Brennan and her daughter were Big Buddies.“There’s something very vulnerable about the camp and the support you get from the staff and the kids. It’s just so special,” she says.

Mike Folio, of Frederick, has been volunteering as a Big Buddy for six years. When he was 12, his mother died from breast cancer. It was just a few weeks before he started seventh grade. He failed that school year. “There was a great fear for years that something was going to happen to my father,” Folio says. “I had no one to talk to. The only time an adult talked to me about it was the following year when a teacher approached me about talking to a seventh-grader who had lost his mother.”

His Camp Jamie Little Buddy, just 7 years old, recently lost his father suddenly and unexpectedly. During the bus ride to Camp Jamie, the Little Buddy related his story and a fear about losing his mom, Folio says.”I wish I had this experience of being with a group of kids, learning it’s OK to cry in front of kids.”

Yes, tears are welcome at Camp Jamie. During sharing circles, kids can talk about their loved one and their feelings of grief. “There are a lot of tears in the sharing circles, which are the most intense parts of the weekend,” Brennan says.

Dr. Dan

Dan Haffey, of Frederick, was one of two psychologists on the camp staff this year. He gives campers creative ways to safely express and manage their feelings. “We always have kids who want to punch the walls. We help them understand the sadness beneath the anger” and to use words to express their feelings, rather than lashing out in anger, he says.

For sessions with “Dr. Dan,” as the kids call him, campers are divided by age group. He leads the journal and discussion sessions, where children draw pictures that remind them of their loved ones and write them letters. They have the option of sharing their journal entries with the group. “They write about how much they miss them, what they would do if they were here, ask what heaven’s like,” Haffey says. “It’s powerful stuff.”

While older kids tend to be angry about the death of a loved one, “younger kids tend to be sad. It depends on their family experience, what kind of support they have,” he adds. “The most difficult is [grief from] suicide. By far, it’s the hardest because there are so many unanswered questions. Some questions will never be answered.”

Haffey, who has been a volunteer at Camp Jamie for about six years, says that it’s “wonderfully hard and amazingly sad. Kids are in a different place when they leave on Sunday.” Before leaving, he talks with them about going back home and sharing what they learned with their families.

That’s what two of Christie Berkey’s kids did last year. Her son Johnny, now 12, and daughter Piper, now 9, were Little Buddies at Camp Jamie in 2012. Berkey was a Big Buddy this year. “They came back [from camp] and I realized the huge differences before they came and after,” says Berkey, who lives in Woodsboro.

Keeping the memory of the loved one alive can help one through the grieving process, says Linda Kinna-Engel, a bereavement services coordinator for Hospice of Frederick County. Tangible and intangible memories of a loved one can be kept in a memory box, she tells the campers. She shares the contents of the memory box she made after her mother died. It includes a glass jar filled with pumpkin seeds to remind her of how her parents saved seeds to plant the following year. The pages of a composition book in the box are filled with recipes handwritten by her mother. She also includes an empty box of Good & Plenty, her mother’s favorite candy, and a package of Doublemint gum—not because it was her mother’s favorite but because it was a sponsor of her favorite TV show.

“It gives them an active way to keep celebrating that person and keep their memory active,” Watterson says about creating the memory boxes. Six-year-old Isaiah decorates his box with football stickers and hearts. Father and son played football together “with a rubber football,” Isaiah says. He already knows what he is going to put in his memory box: “Redskins stuff, some of his old toy figures. I played with them, too,” Isaiah says. “I feel kind of nervous not having him around anymore.”

Uncle Ronnie

Christie Berkey’s brother was in the military and was killed in Afghanistan in 2012. Her son, Johnny, was very close with his “Uncle Ronnie,” who lived with the family. “Ronnie came to every soccer game and coached soccer. He played football in the backyard and played video games with Johnny,” Berkey says. He used to attend her daughter Piper’s dance recitals.

“My brother is the third person in my entire life I’ve lost. I’m not used to dealing with this,” Berkey says. “He was my best friend. We were always talking, always together. He was a big part of our lives.” Though the family often talked about Ronnie and their memories of him, Berkey says she knew her kids needed more to help them through the grieving process. “It hit him hard,” Berkey says of her son. “He basically closed up and wouldn’t talk about it.” Piper had nightmares and couldn’t sleep.

“When they came home from camp, they showed me their journals and memory boxes they had made,” Berkey says. In his journal, Johnny drew pictures of all the things he did with his uncle and the things they wouldn’t be able to do together. Ronnie wouldn’t be there for Johnny’s first day of middle school and he wouldn’t be there when Johnny joins the Army.

“He couldn’t tell me, but he could show me,” Berkey says. Piper shared her camp experiences with her sister, Gillian, who was too young for Camp Jamie. “When Gillian starts crying, the older kids will say to her, ‘We miss him, too.’ I think they took a lot of this from [Camp Jamie],” Berkey says. “It’s amazing to see how they are still putting it to use.”