August 4, 1996 in Features

Children Of Loss Special Camp Helps Children Cope With Grief After Death Of A Relative

By The Spokesman-Review
 

For Crystal King of Rathdrum, solace wafts through the air on the scent of her mother’s Red Door perfume.

When she feels lonely, 14-year-old Crystal steals into the bathroom where a bottle of her mother’s favorite Elizabeth Arden fragrance still lies on a shelf. The scent brings back Darlene King, who died in a car accident last January, for a few precious moments.

“I go in there and smell it just so I don’t forget her smell,” says Crystal, a Lakeland Junior High ninth-grader with a ponytail and sad brown eyes. “She always smelled so good.”

For Nic Wagner of Spokane, reassurance lies in his pocket. It’s a smooth black stone from Mexico. It had belonged to his father, who died in a rock climbing accident when Nic was 7.

Nic is a 10-year-old in an Orca whale T-shirt with solemn hazel eyes. He rubs his fingers against his father’s stone on special occasions, or for good luck when he’s hoping for a strike at the bowling alley.

For these children, memories of the parents they have lost are sweet and terribly sad. They hold their feelings deep in their hearts and sometimes seldom speak them. At school, they rarely meet another child who has lost a parent through death.

But at Camp Chmepa, sponsored by Hospice of Spokane for the first time last weekend, these children found out they were not alone. Forty kids came together to grieve for fathers, mothers, grandparents, sisters or brothers.

Pronounced CHA-mep-pah, the camp’s name is a Salish word that means a place where two rivers come together, blend and become stronger. It also connotes a special place of inclusion, a deep subject, a connecting circle.

The camp was held at Lutherhaven on Lake Coeur d’Alene. Here, grieving kids found it was OK to speak of tragedy and loss. It was also OK to laugh, have fun and make new friends.

“If you have lost a close one, then I think this is the place to go,” said Nic Wagner.

The older kids tackled the challenge course, and the younger ones took a trust walk in blindfolds through the forest. They all dove into the lake on a sticky, hot summer afternoon.

There was time for art therapy, tears and counseling.

“The level of sharing about their grief has been astonishing,” said Tanya Charlton, a counselor for the teenage girls in Crystal King’s cabin. “They get down to the deep emotions.”

On the first night, the girls in Crystal’s cabin passed around a stuffed elephant to hug as they talked about their losses. Crystal spoke first.

Tears flowed, and it was Crystal’s honesty that helped the other girls feel safe enough to grieve, too.

For Crystal, the months since her mother’s death have been filled with the support of many friends and family members as well as tremendous grief. Mother’s Day was particularly hard.

Darlene King, 39, was a well-liked administrative assistant for the Kootenai County commissioners.

She was killed on an icy highway on Jan. 24 when a motorist sped to pass a line of cars. The driver, Michael R. Opland, was charged with vehicular manslaughter.

In April, Crystal’s father suffered a stroke, making it more difficult for the two to communicate.

Crystal struggles to fix simple dinners such as soup and sandwiches some nights, and she berates herself for not caring for her mother’s flower beds.

Coming to camp provided new friends and comfort.

“I’ve had some pretty lonely feelings, but being around these kids and having group discussions. … It just doesn’t make me feel so lonely,” Crystal said.

A grant from the Leuthold Foundation, as well as other donations, paid for the three-day camp. The children stayed for free.

Hospice provided 25 staff members, mostly master’s level social workers and nurses, to help counsel and care for the children.

“That’s a real strong ratio of staff to camper,” says Eileen Lyons, coordinator for Camp Chmepa.

The hospice staff hopes to offer this camp again next year.

According to Lyons, these kids are often relieved to discover their emotions are normal.

Children’s feelings often get ignored in families where the adults are reeling from their own grief.

The children hear messages that wrongly encourage them to stifle their pain: “Be brave,” “You’ve got to be strong” or “You’re the man of the family now.”

Older kids feel troubled by expectations that they should prematurely assume adult responsibilities.

The younger ones especially can baffle the adults in their lives with a limited capacity for grief. They cry, feel sad one moment, and run out to laugh and play again the next.

It seems jarring to an adult, but it’s a normal part of childhood mourning.

Children don’t realize how deeply the loss will affect them over the years. Childhood itself protects them from knowing of the sadness ahead, the pain they will feel when they graduate, marry or give birth themselves.

Adults view childhood loss through a different lens, says Mary Sobek, director of social services for Hospice.

“We know they will grieve and mourn for the rest of their lives,” Sobek says.

The secret is to help children express their most painful feelings. Art can help. During a therapy session at the camp, Nic Wagner drew a vivid picture of his feelings: a boy weeping into a huge dark cloud, which in turned rained tears. He labeled it “Clouds of Tears.”

Hospice counselors find drawings such as Nic’s a positive sign. Through such artistic expression, children can learn to cope with their grief, to heal and to grow.

Most of all, counselors want to help children avoid the dangerous implications of complicated, unresolved bereavement.

That’s often a motivating factor, Sobek says, when kids drop out of school, develop drug and alcohol addictions, or turn to crime.

“I think if we realized the impact of grief, we would do more up front to help people,” Sobek says.

That evening, as the sun sank over the lake, the children danced around a maypole on the beach. They each clutched a bright, colorful ribbon.

Melanie Jablonsky, who led the maypole dance, gave the children careful directions on how to move and duck and sway in order to create a smooth braid of blues, purples and pinks. But many of them were too dazed, too sad or too defiant to pay much attention.

Instead, they wove their ribbons into a knotted, twisted tangle of brilliant color.

“It’s a little crazy. It’s a little mixed up. A little confused,” Jablonsky said.

Much like the feelings of any grieving child.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 5 Photos (4 color)

MEMO: For information on helping kids and adults with grief, call Hospice of Spokane at 456-0438.

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. TROUBLE SIGNS A grieving child may need professional help when he: Looks sad all the time and seems to be in a prolonged depression. Maintains a hectic pace and can no longer relax with parents or friends. No longer cares about how he looks or dresses. Seems tired or unable to sleep; has poorer health or psychosomatic illness. Avoids social activities and wants to be alone more and more. Expresses indifference to school and activities he once enjoyed. Has feelings of worthlessness and self-incrimination. Relies on drugs or alcohol to cope with feelings. Lets his moods control him rather than controlling his moods.

From “Children Mourning, Mourning Children,” published by the Hospice Foundation of America.

2. WAYS TO SUPPORT A GRIEVING CHILD Here’s how a parent can help a grieving child: Learn all you can about childhood grief, look for support groups for yourself and your children, and continue to play a strong parental role. Keep discipline and structure consistent to give the child a sense of stability. Set up specific times to talk about the person who died and remember positive moments. Talk with the child about his feelings about this loss and about loss in general. Take advantage of every opportunity to probe, answer questions and encourage the child to express her emotions. Sadness, anger, guilt, ambivalence, anxiety and fear are all normal feelings. Use the family’s religious faith to help discuss the death. Beware, however, of providing rigid answers that close off emotional expression, or describing an afterlife that leaves the child angry at a God who snatches away loved ones. If the loved one died of an illness, avoid saying, “He died because he was sick,” which may leave the child fearful of even minor illnesses. Make certain the child understands that Grandpa died because “he was very, very sick.” Watch for the “magical thinking” of childhood. Children can easily assume that because they were once angry at the person, they caused the death. They need reassurance that angry feelings are normal and they are not to blame. Allow kids to be kids. Don’t allow them to assume the role of substitute parent in place of the person who died. Create a photo book called “Memories for the Future” containing pictures and descriptions of good times with the person who died and fun occasions since the death. Jamie Tobias Neely

For information on helping kids and adults with grief, call Hospice of Spokane at 456-0438.

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. TROUBLE SIGNS A grieving child may need professional help when he: Looks sad all the time and seems to be in a prolonged depression. Maintains a hectic pace and can no longer relax with parents or friends. No longer cares about how he looks or dresses. Seems tired or unable to sleep; has poorer health or psychosomatic illness. Avoids social activities and wants to be alone more and more. Expresses indifference to school and activities he once enjoyed. Has feelings of worthlessness and self-incrimination. Relies on drugs or alcohol to cope with feelings. Lets his moods control him rather than controlling his moods.

From “Children Mourning, Mourning Children,” published by the Hospice Foundation of America.

2. WAYS TO SUPPORT A GRIEVING CHILD Here’s how a parent can help a grieving child: Learn all you can about childhood grief, look for support groups for yourself and your children, and continue to play a strong parental role. Keep discipline and structure consistent to give the child a sense of stability. Set up specific times to talk about the person who died and remember positive moments. Talk with the child about his feelings about this loss and about loss in general. Take advantage of every opportunity to probe, answer questions and encourage the child to express her emotions. Sadness, anger, guilt, ambivalence, anxiety and fear are all normal feelings. Use the family’s religious faith to help discuss the death. Beware, however, of providing rigid answers that close off emotional expression, or describing an afterlife that leaves the child angry at a God who snatches away loved ones. If the loved one died of an illness, avoid saying, “He died because he was sick,” which may leave the child fearful of even minor illnesses. Make certain the child understands that Grandpa died because “he was very, very sick.” Watch for the “magical thinking” of childhood. Children can easily assume that because they were once angry at the person, they caused the death. They need reassurance that angry feelings are normal and they are not to blame. Allow kids to be kids. Don’t allow them to assume the role of substitute parent in place of the person who died. Create a photo book called “Memories for the Future” containing pictures and descriptions of good times with the person who died and fun occasions since the death. Jamie Tobias Neely


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email