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Just kids: The summer camps where bereaved children heal and grow

Kids playing in the outdoors at summer camp

Summer camp is an unforgettable rite of passage for many American kids, but for children who have suffered the death of a parent or other close loved one, it can can have special significance.

All over the U.S. are some wonderful summer camps, dedicated to hosting bereaved children aged from as young as seven to 17. For teens mourning the death of a parent, guardian or sibling, these grief camps can provide a safe space for them to openly grieve, heal and develop skills to help them grow in confidence.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell that an apparently carefree child is grieving, while for other kids the weight of responsibility to ‘be strong’ for loved ones, or mask the grief that may single them out from their high-school peers, is an invisible burden.

Indeed, Prince Harry recently opened up about going through therapy, after coming close to breaking point due to unresolved grief over the death of his mom, Princess Diana. Harry, who was aged just 12 when she died, explained he had “shut down all his emotions” for almost 20 years, before seeking counseling.

The prince, who says he is now in a good place, explained: “My way of dealing with it was sticking my head in the sand, refusing to ever think about my mum, because why would that help?

“I can safely say that losing my mum at the age of 12, and therefore shutting down all of my emotions for the last 20 years, has had a quite serious effect on not only my personal life but my work as well.”

Being a kid again

At grief camp, every youngster has, like Harry, endured the death of someone close. Here, age-appropriate childhood bereavement experts are ready to listen with opportunities to open up, share and let go. It’s a time and place, too, to have fun and laugh again – while holding the memory of loved ones dear.

Campers can expect a host of fun outdoor activities and games, as they buddy up and begin their summer adventure. Here, a bereavement does not make them different. Everyone has lost someone they loved, so there’s a chance to share how they feel with other grieving children as they play, or open up during the camp’s grief therapist-led healing circles.

Summer camps for grieving children depend on the generous support of corporate sponsors, community fundraisers and well-wishers’ charitable donations to offer their residential stays and liberating programs at no cost to their young guests.

The process of reviewing applications and referrals, registering children and organizing trips can begin at least 12 weeks ahead of grief camp. Some spaces can be limited, while there could also be a wait if demand is high for breaks at your nearest camp.

Details are on their websites about how to apply and the many ways you could help fundraise and give a bereaved child the opportunity for a wonderful and supportive experience where they get to simply be a kid again.

Here, we take a look at what seven grief camp programs across the country have to offer bereaved children and grieving teens.

Camp Erin

children dangle their bare feet over a stream on a summer day Picture via www.bigstockphoto.com

There are 48 Camp Erin locations across the country, providing unforgettable and healing weekend camps for bereaved children aged six to 17, led by grief professionals and dedicated volunteers. Parent organization The Moyer Foundation also runs a summer camp program (Camp Mariposa) for kids affected by addiction in the family.

The focus at Camp Erin is for young people to share their stories in a friendly space with other children who have lost a parent, sibling, guardian, or other close relative. They’ll build a ‘toolbox’ of coping skills and set to work on absorbing projects throughout the weekend, with the chance to honor and memorialize the loved one they miss. As Michelle, 15, expressed it: “Camp Erin has helped me figure out my emotions and finally allow them to come out. It has also made me feel comfortable letting my feelings out because I know that others around understand what I am going through.”

Aimed at helping children and teens to process their grief, these activities are part of a free program which includes many traditional camp games and challenges, with fun and friendship being a big part of the mix.

A map on the Camp Erin section of The Moyer Foundation website provides details for each camp location, to which you can apply direct. Each camp is run individually, with the capacity and waiting lists varying.

Camp Erin has hosted 21,617 young campers since 2002 and its website also has a great resources center, which children, teens, parents and other carers can search for activities, support and therapies, according to their relationship with the bereaved.

Comfort Zone Camp

two little girls climbing a cargo net in a play areaPicture via www.bigstockphoto.com

Comfort Zone programs and camps take place in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York and Virginia, offering bereaved children and teens aged from seven through 17 lots of typical summer camp fun, including hiking, games, crafts outdoor challenges and karaoke.

The bereavement support it provides can be transformational for grieving children, who each have a volunteer mentor looking out for them, as well as peer support and age-appropriate counseling from professionals. Comfort Zone Camp aims for its campers to become stronger and more confident as they emerge from the ‘bubble’ that grief can envelop them in, and gives them “permission to be a kid again.”

Visit the website for details about how to apply and register for a place. Comfort Zone also offers community support programs including HelloGrief.org (an online grief support community) and family support groups.

Camp Good Grief

A group of children toast s'mores over a campfirePicture via www.bigstockphoto.com

Sport, swimming, kayaking, arts and crafts, exploring nature – afternoons are action-packed at Camp Good Grief with group and art therapy sessions getting Good Grief’s day camps off to a start. A special event brings every day to an end with fun and excitement at this camp, where it’s okay to talk about how you feel in the company of other children who have been bereaved.

The summer camp is hosted by East End Hospice, Westhampton Beach, NY, which offers bereavement groups for adults throughout the year. With the guidance of advanced practice social workers, nurse practitioners, psychologists and art therapists who are trained by the hospice in childhood grief, grieving children and teenagers are encouraged to rediscover some of the freedoms of youth curtailed by grief and grow in confidence.

Children from outside of the local area can apply to attend, but this is not a residential camp, so those coming from further away tend to stay with relatives who live in the area or with their family for the week at a local hotel or campground. There are buses to camp from four nearby drop-off points.

Camp Koala

A girl stretching her arms, enjoying being in a woodland environmentPicture via www.bigstockphoto.com

Most bereaved children and teens don’t know that they’re not alone until they arrive at camp, says Camp Koala. Its free residential and day camps, held at various locations in central and northeastern Pennsylvania, are open to bereaved children aged seven to 12, while it also hosts a teen camp for young people aged 13 to 18.

It’s not a sad place, but a place of healing and memory making, with each residential camper teamed up with a Big Buddy mentor with social workers, art, music, dance and movement therapists, adult buddies, police officers and teachers among its amazing team of volunteer staff. Making up the Camp Koala crew and helping kids learn how to be kids again are three wonderful pet therapy dogs.

Many of the camp’s fun activities are designed to support bereaved children to express themselves and share stories about their loved ones, with traditional camp activities including campfires, boating, swimming, archery, hiking, making memory boxes and s’mores. Details about how grieving children and teens can apply for a place are on the website.

Healing Hearts

A smiling little girl learning to ride a horsePicture via www.bigstockphoto.com

Charity CancerCare is behind the annual Healing Hearts camp at Malibu Dude Ranch in Milford, PA, which is open to bereaved families who have lost a loved one to cancer.

Horseback riding, swimming and a spirit of freedom and adventure are at the heart of this healing summer vacation, with therapeutic grief activities led by oncology social workers to provide emotional support.

“The camp is a place where the families can come together and not feel different,” says CancerCare’s Claire Grainger. “The kids meet others who have experienced a similar loss and they don’t have to explain anything to one another. There are a lot of tears, but there is also so much laughter.”

Experience Camps

Experience Camps are for boys and girls who have experienced the death of a parent, sibling or primary caregiver. The free week-long summer camps are held in New York, Maine, California and Georgia.

Since they began in 2009, the camps have hosted bereaved children from 23 states and organizers say that just so long as you can get to the nearest bus or airport pickup from camp, they’ll get you the rest of the way.

Kids get to be kids at this home away from home, where camp professionals, including licensed social workers, doctors, nurses, certified lifeguards, high school guidance counselors, teachers, coaches and college athletes, support them to unload from the weight of their emotions, be creative, try new adventures, make new friends and play.

The Experience Camps program blends bereavement activities and projects designed to help express feelings, explore memories and build confidence, as well as learn and take part in a host of outdoor and team activities, including rock climbing, waterskiing, and archery.

Clinical director Cara Allen says: “Experience camp is often referred to by our campers as the best week of their year. They get to be surrounded by other kids and adults who really get what they have been through. They have permission to have fun even in the midst of grief. We also encourage our campers to return summer after summer.

“How young people process their emotions changes with each developmental stage so we design programming that is age appropriate and helps them to understand themselves more as they mature. We hope they leave camp each summer feeling more supported, and with tools to help them cope with the wide range of emotions brought on by grief. It’s not a matter of 'getting over' grief, but learning to live with it, to manage it. Knowing you aren’t alone, and that fun still exists, is the foundation of that process.”

Camp Magik

A circle of children playing a game in the outdoorsPicture via www.bigstockphoto.com

Being among other kids who have experienced the death of a parent or other close loved one can be a significant part of the healing process. At Camp Magik, which runs three summer programs at adventure centres in Georgia, typical camp activities like canoeing, ropes courses, hiking, and more are part of the fun, while bereavement counseling is also part of these life-changing and uplifting retreats.

Parents and guardians are invited to attend a special morning session, to learn from caring professionals about how children process grief and about healthy ways for the whole family to manage and cope with loss.

Adults also get to relive a bit of their own youth, with a cookout at the end of the lecture and group discussion. There’s also the option for parents or guardians to attend their own retreat, which runs concurrently with the kids’ camps. There is a $25 registration fee for this, although there is no charge for the children’s stays.

Find out more about supporting a grieving child, or how to contact a bereavement support organization for expert help and advice.