Losing a loved one is never easy but it can be especially hard on children. Studies show that children grieve differently than adults. Depending on the age, “they may become more irritable or withdrawn,” said Tami Benton, MD, of Psychiatry. Or they may hold grief inside. “A child who has lost his father sees his mom grieving her loss and fears that if he says anything, it will make mom sad. Having someone who is available makes a huge difference.”
And that’s where Camp Erin-Philadelphia can help. Run by staff at Penn Wissahickon Hospice, this overnight camp helps children and teens who have suffered the death of a relative or close friend. While Camp Erin offers many of the fun activities of traditional camps, helping children express their feelings is an important component. Held each May at a camp in Montgomery County, it is part of a network of bereavement camps throughout the U.S., created by The Moyer Foundation.
Creative arts plays a big part in camp activities. “It’s is a wonderful way for children to express what’s going on that talking can’t access,” said Molly Hicks, Penn Wissahickon Hospice music therapist who is the performing arts coordinator at Camp Erin.
At this year's camp, teaching artist Josh Robinson showed campers how to express emotions by banging on different kinds of drums while repeating words pertinent to grief (eg, anger or sadness) on each beat. “The older kids especially enjoyed this,” Hicks said. “It relieved a lot of tension built up during grieving.”
Hicks wrote music for a new song and lyrics for the chorus, and then brainstormed with campers to write the verses. “I asked them what they liked best about the camp and how it helped them,” she said. “It was a way to have fun and also realize that you’re not alone. The kids were supporting one another, coming together as a group.” They sang the completed song at the camp’s Showcase performance, as well as other songs “with messages of positivity and removing obstacles,” such as Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off and Katy Perry’s Roar. “The general theme was to validate and uplift each other while having fun.”
Creating works of art is another way to help children express their feelings. Using markers, stickers and magazines, campers were encouraged to make collages that were comforting or held memories of time spent with the person who died. “It’s easier to express anger in a collage. It makes it safe,” said Sarah Abramowitz, Camp Erin’s clinical director and art therapist. “One child drew a dragonfly. ‘It was my mom’s favorite thing.’ Another drew a lightning bolt which reminded him of the time he and his dad got caught in a storm.”
Campers decorated picture frames for photos of those they were grieving as well as luminary bags that were lit at a ceremony in the person’s memory. Abramowitz also helped parents make affirmation jars for their family that they could fill with their own messages or those given at camp.
“Art helps children remember that their connection with the person doesn’t go away,” Abramowitz said. “Memories live on in them.”
It’s important to have an intervention like Camp Erin, Benton said. “It’s a place that’s safe for the children to express themselves. They don’t have to worry about bursting into tears… everyone understands,” she said. “The camp keeps them engaged in normal activities and reassures them emotionally. It shows that life can still be rewarding.”