TAMPA — Even the swirly penmanship can't hide the weight of their loss.
Armed with fluorescent markers, grieving children scrawl on walls, pouring out their young hearts in the darkness of an old office. Their words glow back at them, bathed in the shroud of a black light.
It's not vandalism, but a new way to grieve, made especially for the young people who grief counselors say often struggle most with the loss of a mother or father, brother or sister, grandmother or grandfather.
That's where the new Grief Cave, as it is known here at LifePath Hospice's Circle of Love Center for Grieving Children, finds its reason for being.
"Kids want cool," said Steve Furry, 48, a construction coordinator for Tampa Electric who volunteers at the center. "This is a way kids can express themselves in a cool way."
A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held Tuesday to mark the opening of the Grief Cave, though some children at the center had a chance to mark its walls for the first time the night before. Its purpose is simple: to give children another venue to vent their feelings as part of the often difficult grieving process.
"They're not going to be able to come in and sit down and talk to you and tell their story about how they're feeling," said Tammy Alsing, the center's bereavement manager. "We know there are feelings inside, swirling around, but they don't know how to express them."
Enter the Grief Cave.
Starting this week, counselors will give children markers and then set them loose to write or draw whatever they want to convey. Inside the rectangular room, the walls are painted black and covered in Plexiglas. A black light glows from above.
On Tuesday, those walls radiated emotion. One child had written of her love for her deceased mother, inscribing her words in a cocoon of symbols for hugs and kisses. She wrote about missing her desperately, her last words saying, "it is hard."
Counselors see such messages as a way for young children to come to terms with their grief.
Kelly Thorpe, a counselor at the center, recalled how a 4-year-old girl marched into the cave Monday night and declared she was going to pen a letter to her mother. Her message was indecipherable, but the girl didn't mind in the slightest.
Older children were smitten with the black light. Younger ones gazed at the fluorescent stars on the room's ceiling. They experimented with different markers to see which glowed best.
"They loved it," Thorpe said. "They just came in and said, 'This is so neat.' "
The Grief Cave was made possible by a group of business professionals participating in a leadership program run by the Westshore Alliance; In all, they raised more than $30,000 for the cave and other renovations of the center.
"It sounded a little scary at first," Alsing said, "but when she told me about the reflective nature of it, the journaling concept, I said, 'That sounds really neat.' "
More than 300 young people ages 3 to 18 participate each year in programs at the center, where they can thrash around with pillows and punching bags in a space known as the Hurricane Room, play foosball in the game room or dress up like a firefighter or a princess in the playroom.
Eventually, the walls in the Grief Cave will run out of space, at which point the messages will be erased.
Then the journaling, and the healing, can continue.
Thomas Kaplan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3404.