Children's Grief Camp: Sharing Grief, Finding Hope

Seventy-five children and fifty volunteers and staff members from OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center in Los Angeles spent three spectacular days in the Malibu Hills, filled with peals of laughter, tears of sadness and a profound sense of resilience and hope. The children arrived on Friday afternoon at this mountain retreat where the bonding had already begun on their bus ride up to camp. By the time Sunday afternoon rolled around, new friendships had formed and the campers had experienced new ways to share their grief and their memories.

Welcome to Camp Erin-Los Angeles, a free bereavement camp designed for children ages 6-17, who have experienced the death of a family member or friend within the last 3 years. In this safe and comforting environment, the campers are divided into boys and girls cabins each made up of 5-10 of their peers. After several "getting to know you" activities in their cabins, everyone gathers for a delicious dinner of spaghetti and meatballs, followed by the Memory Board ceremony. Camp co-directors Lauren Schneider and Jessica Krell tell the story of how Camp Erin was created and funded by The Moyer Foundation in Seattle, WA a non-profit organization established by Major League All-Star pitcher Jamie Moyer and his wife, Karen.

In respectful silence, all present watch as each child, one by one, places a picture of the person who died in their life onto the memory board and tells everyone a little bit about the person and their cause of death:

"My dad died of a gunshot. He was the funniest man I ever knew. He made me laugh and I miss that."
"I don't understand why my brother had to be the one to get cancer. It's not fair that he died."
"My mom wasn't even sick...but her heart stopped one day while I was at school and I never saw her again."

Alternating with the intense expression of feelings, the Friday night dance party allows the campers to physically release some of the intense emotions. As the weekend continues, the schedule allows for balancing grief work with fun outdoor activities such as rock wall climbing, swimming, relay racing, hiking, tie-dye shirt making, and basketball interspersed with grief-related activities used to facilitate expression of grief and memorialize their loved one who died. Camp favorites include the memorial luminary ceremony and the grief hike.

One 10-year old camper captured our hearts when she appeared completely content laying on one of our VERY large therapy dogs that are brought by their trainers on Saturday morning. She full-bodied laid on the dog for quite a long time and appeared completely relaxed as he so calmly contained her. A group of 8 and 9 year olds surrounded one of their cabin-mates as she tearfully spoke of feeling responsible and confused by the death of her grandmother. "We understand...lots of times we feel that way too."

The growth and transformation witnessed in these 48 hours is a testament to the value of having a safe place where grief is not taboo. As the campers performed their "grief skits" in front of their family members on Sunday afternoon, a sense of gratitude and understanding abounded.

*Camp Erin-Los Angeles was featured in the Emmy-winning Documentary, One Last Hug (...and a few smooches): Three Days at Grief Camp

Fredda Wasserman, MA, MPH, LMFT, CT, is the Clinical Director of Adult Programs and Education at OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center, one of the nation's most respected centers for grief support and education. Fredda presents workshops and seminars on end of life and grief for therapists, clergy, educators, and medical and mental health professionals at locations throughout the country. She is the co-author of Saying Goodbye to Someone You Love: Your Emotional Journey Through End of Life and Grief. Recognized as an expert in death, dying, and bereavement, Fredda has devoted her career to life's final chapter.