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Hope and Healing for Grieving Children

Hope and healing for grieving children

When a loved one dies, it is natural to experience feelings of sorrow, shock, denial, anger and confusion. And while it’s important that we take care of ourselves and rely on the support of others as we journey through the grief process, we must not forget, as parents and caregivers, to pay attention to the roller coaster of emotions that our children may be experiencing as well.

“Children of different ages cope with death in different ways,” says Abby Mosher, the founder and executive director of Tomorrow’s Rainbow Inc. The organization allows children who have experienced the death of a loved one to interact with miniature horses on a private ranch, participate in therapeutic play and receive peer support.

“A small child’s grief is going to be different than a teenager’s,” Mosher explains. “Little ones will not be able to grasp the finality of death and that their loved one isn’t coming back — until they are about 7.”

Coconut Creek-based Tomorrow’s Rainbow, which was developed 11 years ago so that no child would have to grieve alone, offers free peer support sessions twice a month children ages 3 to 18.

Because the grieving process changes as a child matures, the organization has an open-door policy, allowing children to come back to the ranch whenever they need to.

With research showing that one in seven children will have a parent or a sibling die by the time they reach 20, it’s important that grieving children are provided with a support system.

“When we support children’s grief, we reduce the possibility of at-risk behaviors in their future,” Mosher says.

Tomorrow’s Rainbow also offers family retreats and camps. One partner in that mission is Camp Kangaroo, a national bereavement camp offered free of charge to children ages 5 to 18.

The Camp Kangaroo program, led by dedicated professionals and trained volunteers from Seasons Hospice & Palliative Care, is based in psychotherapy and creative arts therapy, providing participants with grief education and emotional support along with fun camp activities.

“There are times when children have problems with grief where a basic support group isn’t enough,” says Mosher. “Camp Kangaroo is the perfect enhancement to the services we already provide.”

Each Camp Kangaroo session ranges from two to four days with a curriculum sequenced to move campers through the tasks of mourning, says Ryana Goldberger, national director of supportive care and patient experience at Seasons.

“Often as parents, we have trepidation that [children] might be exposed to things they might not be able to deal with,” says Goldberger, who has directed several Camp Kangaroos across the country. “We find the opposite — children are very resilient and receptive.”

At Camp Kangaroo, “children are smiling and laughing and playing,” Goldberger explains. “They exchange contact information at the end of camp. They have a great time.”

Before any Camp Kangaroo event, a master’s-level social worker will conduct a comprehensive in-home assessment with a child.

The social worker will ask parents or caregivers if there have been changes in their child’s behavior or what their expectations may be for their child, Goldberger explains.

Signs that a grieving child may need support may include changes in school performance, increased anxiety, trouble sleeping, changes in appetite, behavioral problems or regression in behavior, such as bed-wetting and thumb sucking.

“It is also very normal for children to become more clingy or attached to a parent after a loss,” Goldberger says. “Children may also experience paranoia or protectiveness of a parent who is still alive.”

Another bereavement camp is Camp Erin, offered free of charge for children ages 6 to 17. This camp, sponsored by The Moyer Foundation and Catholic Hospice, is a three-day program facilitated by professional staff and trained volunteers. It provides bereaved children with a safe place to tell their story and share their feelings while learning healthy coping strategies for their grief journey.

At Camp Erin, “We provide activities to help [children] deal with whatever they are feeling in a healthy way,” says Alejandra Navas, community relations specialist for Catholic Hospice. “We teach them that it’s OK to experience those emotions, but it’s what you do about it that makes a difference.”

Sidebars below:

How to help children ages 2 to 12 grieve, according to cancercare.org:

  1. Be aware that children grieve differently than adults do.
  2. Use language your child can understand.
  3. Allow your child to attend the funeral if she or he wants to.
  4. Share your faith and beliefs in ways your child can understand.
  5. Hug your child often.
  6. Ease your child’s fears.
  7. Include your children in plans to cope with special days.
  8. Take care of yourself.
  9. Ask for help.
  10. Get extra support.

Bereavement camp dates and support centers:

  • Camp Kangaroo: January 14–15, located at Shake-A-Leg Miami

Visit: seasonsfoundation.org/camp-kangaroo

  • Camp Erin: March 24–26, located at Camp Owaissa Bauer in Miami

Email CampErin@catholichospice.org.

  • Tomorrow's Rainbow Ranch 

Visit Tomorrowsrainbow.org or call 954-978-2390 to schedule your family’s orientation.

  • Children’s Bereavement Center (four locations in Miami-Dade and Broward)

Provides free peer support groups for children, young adults and adult caregivers after the death of a loved one. Visit childbereavement.org.

Chrissie Ferguson is a freelance writer and the mother of three boys. She is also a middle school language arts teacher at Rosarian Academy in West Palm Beach. Follow her on Twitter @gatorchriz1.