GLEN LAKES — Nearly 30 Hernando County children ages 5 to 11 who have experienced the deaths of loved ones learned how to deal with their grief at a day camp Tuesday sponsored by Hernando Pasco Hospice at Glen Lakes Country Club.
Activities such as small circle discussions, composing folders, making masks and filling memory boxes got the youngsters talking about the person — in some cases, two people — they had lost. They shared their feelings at Camp Sol, and found out they were not alone.
"If a kid is old enough to understand love, he can experience grief," hospice counselor Steve Brown said. "We talk to them in a language they understand. We use 'death' and 'dying.' If we say 'passed away' or 'gone away,' they could think the person was coming back."
Counselors fill a special role. Sometimes if a child asks parents about a lost loved one, the parents may cry or say they don't want to talk about it, Brown said. Children don't want to make a parent cry, and without talking, they bottle up their feelings. That can lead to physical illness, emotional instability, acting out or withdrawal.
Most campers let their feelings and memories flow at the various sessions.
With vivid recall, Cameron, in the circle of children ages 7 and 8, said his great grandpa died on Sept. 8 at 10 o'clock in the morning. Trevor noted his grandma died March 15.
"She was really sick," he said.
Some children revealed feelings of guilt. Douglas, 8, said he feared he'd given his grandmother headaches when he got rowdy with his cousins. She died of a brain disease.
"You had nothing to do with that," counselor Crystal MacRitchey told him. "I think grandmothers expect noise from children."
In the same circle, Stephanie said she was mad at herself for not spending enough time with her grandmother, who died. Douglas spoke similarly of his grandmother.
"I think she died because I didn't spend enough time with her," he said.
Ashley, 11, said it was her mother who was suffering guilt over the death of Ashley's 21-year-old brother. He'd left the house to go out with friends, someone slipped drugs into his drink, and he died.
The mother blames herself for letting him leave the house. But a counselor told Ashley that a parent of an adult can hardly lock her son in his room.
"She didn't cause it, and she couldn't have changed it," the counselor said.
Some fears came out. Jack, who lost a grandparent, said in the 10- and 11-year-old circle, "I'm afraid something else bad will happen again."
In a mask-making activity, the children were instructed to draw their outside feelings with colored pens on one side of a paper plate, and on the other, they should draw their inside feelings. Some were in stark contrast.
Ashley solidly penned the words "mad and sad" on her inside face and drew tears falling from her eyes. Her outside face wore a pleasant countenance.
Douglas' inside face showed a brick in his head. He was "very crazy" when his grandmother died, he said. He dithered over how to paint his outside face.
Nicole, 8, drew tears on the cheeks of her inside face, but surrounded it with hearts, "Because hearts remind me of my grandmother," she said.
Faith, 10, who said her "aunt and uncle are in a better place," drew an artful, smiling expression for her inside face.
Hospice children's program counselor Nilda Sessler led the campers in a drum circle. Sessler set the tempo, encouraging the kids to follow her lead and listen to the others. It was designed to teach a sense of community and that they are not all alone with their feelings. Smiles abounded.
"If you're really sad, what if you make a big sound? And where did the sound go?" Sessler asked them as she gestured upward.
"Into the air," several children replied.
"Take out your sadness with sound," Sessler said.
Beyond sadness, counselors said to foster the good memories. They don't all come from the brain, as 9-year-old Brian said. Good memories are things, too.
Emily, 9, said her aunt left her a model elephant and a personal note. The grandmother of Robert, 9, gave him her coin collection.
Memories take many shapes, counselor Laura Weber said. "What about smells?"
Autumn, 9, recalled the luscious smell of her late mother's fried chicken. Austin, 9, conjured up memories of pizza and hot chocolate in his grandmother's kitchen.
The children went on to make memory boxes in honor of their loved ones, with photos, colored feathers, costume gemstones and stick-on letters. At home, they were encouraged to add other objects that remind them of their lost loved ones.
The day ended with a balloon release to symbolize the children floating their feelings heavenward.
The camps in Hernando, Pasco and Citrus counties are funded by United Way of Pasco County, Florida Medical Clinic of Zephyrhills and the Community Foundation of Pasco County. Glen Lakes provided this camp's facility and lunch free of charge.
Eckerd Youth Alternative Camp E-Nini-Hassee in Floral City loaned drums for that activity.
Beth Gray can be reached at [email protected].