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Kids who lost special people learn to heal at Tampa Bay area grief camp

The Blue Butterfly camp helps grieving children with puppies, teddy bears and meditation. But connecting with others is the key remedy.
 
With the help of volunteers, children spend time with puppies as part of their therapy while attending Blue Butterfly camp, a summer program for kids grieving the loss of a loved one, on Aug. 3 in Palmetto.
With the help of volunteers, children spend time with puppies as part of their therapy while attending Blue Butterfly camp, a summer program for kids grieving the loss of a loved one, on Aug. 3 in Palmetto. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Aug. 21, 2023|Updated Aug. 25, 2023

PALMETTO — The children picked out beads to make bracelets. None of the bracelets matched, none followed a discernible pattern.

Jackson, 5, chose a purple bead. It symbolized his mom’s death.

Next, he chose a pink bead because she died of cancer. The black bead meant he felt lonely.

The girl next to him picked a white bead. Her sibling had died.

A yellow bead symbolized death by natural causes. A red bead meant murder. An orange bead, suicide.

It was their first day at Blue Butterfly, a camp in Manatee County for bereaved children.

The campers attend support groups and learn coping techniques from certified counselors, but they also process their grief with puppies, meditation and stuffed animals from a teddy bear library.

Isabella hugs one of the puppies brought in for puppy therapy. “This one really likes me,” Isabella said as the puppy licked her face. She was attending Blue Butterfly camp, a summer program for kids grieving the loss of a loved one, on Aug. 3 in Palmetto.
Isabella hugs one of the puppies brought in for puppy therapy. “This one really likes me,” Isabella said as the puppy licked her face. She was attending Blue Butterfly camp, a summer program for kids grieving the loss of a loved one, on Aug. 3 in Palmetto. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

The first day meant introductions — of the campers and their “special person” who died.

As young as 4, many children in this group could not yet read or write. Instead, they strung together beads like sentences in their grief story.

The bracelets were also tools for Blue Butterfly counselors to explain words like murder, suicide, burial and cremation.

Later, Jackson picked stickers to decorate his name tag. A lion, his favorite animal. A turtle, his mom’s favorite. And a lion with big hearts for eyes because he loved his mom a lot.

“She loved turtles,” Jackson said, “and she loved pictures of me.”

Jackson shares the details of a picture he created of his mother, who died, pointing out the color he used to illustrate her blue eyes and how he remembered she loved turtles. He was at Blue Butterfly camp, a summer program for kids grieving the loss of a loved one, on Aug. 3 in Palmetto.
Jackson shares the details of a picture he created of his mother, who died, pointing out the color he used to illustrate her blue eyes and how he remembered she loved turtles. He was at Blue Butterfly camp, a summer program for kids grieving the loss of a loved one, on Aug. 3 in Palmetto. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

“Heard and less alone”

When Blue Butterfly director Danielle Visone was 10, her dad was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. He died 65 days later.

Visone’s mother enrolled in support groups. The group for grieving children gave Visone an outlet to discuss her feelings with other kids.

“It made me feel heard and less alone,” she said. “It made me feel like people care about me as a grieving kid, but also about my dad. I was allowed to talk about him and that was huge.”

Visone never forgot that community. She remembered it when applying for college, studying for undergraduate psychology exams and earning her master’s in social work; when she volunteered to help launch Blue Butterfly five years ago; and when she walks by the picture of her and her dad hanging at Blue Butterfly’s facility, where kids are invited to hang pictures of their special person.

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Pictures made by campers hang in one of the group therapy rooms at Blue Butterfly, a summer program for kids grieving the loss of a loved one, on Aug. 3 in Palmetto.
Pictures made by campers hang in one of the group therapy rooms at Blue Butterfly, a summer program for kids grieving the loss of a loved one, on Aug. 3 in Palmetto. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

One of Visone’s goals is to help them understand that when someone dies they can’t come back. Talk of angels and promises of their special person always being there can confuse children, she said.

One child told her they just need to find some pixie dust and then their special person will come home. Another described their plans to visit their special person in heaven — they couldn’t grasp the difference between that and a trip to Orlando.

“This age group still has that magical thinking mentality,” Visone said. “It’s a lot of reassuring that when this person dies that means their body stops working, it shuts down, it can no longer work.”

“Everyone in the circle”

A hundred bereaved children attended camp for free this summer thanks to a grant from Manatee County and donors from the Tidewell Foundation, a Sarasota based nonprofit that provides grief counseling and other support services.

Campers participated in 10 support group sessions, each focused on a tool to help them heal.

Before joining a group, each child meets one on one with a counselor to evaluate if they are ready to discuss their grief in a group setting.

“We want everyone to know that everyone in the circle has had someone die — even me, even the volunteers, even the other staff,” Visone said.

Savannah, left, learns the rules of the game “Guess Who” from volunteer Renna Vondrasek while attending Blue Butterfly camp, a summer program for kids grieving the loss of a loved one, on Aug. 3 in Palmetto.
Savannah, left, learns the rules of the game “Guess Who” from volunteer Renna Vondrasek while attending Blue Butterfly camp, a summer program for kids grieving the loss of a loved one, on Aug. 3 in Palmetto. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Many children acknowledge they are afraid of being bullied if they speak up about their person, Visone said.

“They get told ‘I don’t want to hear that because it makes other kids uncomfortable,’” she said.

More than any one part of the curriculum, Visone said, the connections formed between campers help heal.

“Coming here, it’s not only about learning and really processing,” she said. “It’s about camaraderie.”

“The death of experiences”

Lendy Chapman sat crisscrossed in a circle with campers on a recent morning. A pile of unlit electric tea lights lay beside her.

Every support group starts with a check-in. Campers share their name and the name of their person who died. They describe how they’re feeling, and they light a tea light in memory of their loved one.

This week was the “littles” turn at camp. The youngest children in the circle were just 4 — the same age as Chapman when her grandfather died.

Some could not verbalize their emotions. Instead, Chapman helped them decorate little stick-figure versions of themselves to place into jars, each labeled with a face — sad, happy, angry.

A child life specialist who spent 17 years in hospitals before coming to Blue Butterfly, Chapman is familiar with grief. She has lost multiple close family members. While counseling the “littles,” she chose to check in by remembering her grandfather.

Jackson and Cora play Uno in front of a large collection of stuffed toys while attending Blue Butterfly camp, a summer program for kids grieving the loss of a loved one, on Aug. 3 in Palmetto.
Jackson and Cora play Uno in front of a large collection of stuffed toys while attending Blue Butterfly camp, a summer program for kids grieving the loss of a loved one, on Aug. 3 in Palmetto. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Chapman said children often grieve twice: first when the person dies, again when their memories of the person fade.

“It’s not just about the death of the person, it’s about the death of experiences, the death of things you’re going to miss, the death of things you’re going to forget, the relationships, the milestones, all the things they’re never going to get to see,” she said.

By the end of support group, the glow of electric tea lights illuminated the room.

Grief is a way to make friends

A cluster of campers lined up in front of a door after morning support group.

The door swung open and revealed a litter of squirming puppies. The campers rushed to hold them.

The puppies from Nate’s Honor Animal Rescue did not play a role in any exercise about processing grief. They were not trained therapy animals. Their job was to make the campers smile, which they did.

But even during the playful moments, the campers remembered their special person.

Adrianna, 7, marched around camp in the pink leather boots her grandfather, whom she called “Nonno,” had given her, and she told other campers about music from four decades before she was born. She talked about AC/DC and her Nonno’s favorite song, “Long As I Can See The Light,” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. During craft time, she drew a portrait of her Nonno.

“Even though his hair didn’t really look like this, I wanted him to look like a rock star,” she said.

Adrianna smiles while talking about her grandfather, who died recently, recalling how they loved each other, while attending Blue Butterfly camp, a summer program for kids grieving the loss of a loved one, on Aug. 3 in Palmetto.
Adrianna smiles while talking about her grandfather, who died recently, recalling how they loved each other, while attending Blue Butterfly camp, a summer program for kids grieving the loss of a loved one, on Aug. 3 in Palmetto. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Siblings Jaiden, left, and Kaelyn sit with Paisley as they all are handed a puppy for puppy therapy at Blue Butterfly camp.
Siblings Jaiden, left, and Kaelyn sit with Paisley as they all are handed a puppy for puppy therapy at Blue Butterfly camp. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Paisley, 7, and another girl talked about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers while they colored. Their dads had loved to watch football.

At Blue Butterfly, grief is a way to make friends.

“I made two friends today and one yesterday,” Paisley said.

In dark times, hope glows

The words on the walls of the grief cave glow.

The dark, closet-sized space is the campers’ haven. If a camper needs a moment alone, they visit the cave.

Once the doors shut, the camper is enveloped in darkness. Then, the walls glow.

The walls are black dry-erase boards. Campers, in their darkest moments, use glow-in-the-dark markers to write messages.

The older campers write letters to their dead loved ones.

“Dear dad … We got a new puppy named Zoey,” one reads. “Since this puppy is an English Mastiff, she will be twice the size of Cricket.”

Some draw pictures.

In one, two stick figures, one big and one little, hold hands.

Messages and pictures in glow-in-the-dark marker fill the walls inside a low-lit room where campers can spend time alone while attending Blue Butterfly camp.
Messages and pictures in glow-in-the-dark marker fill the walls inside a low-lit room where campers can spend time alone while attending Blue Butterfly camp. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Other messages read more like cries for help.

“Can’t wait to see you guys again, it’s been really hard without you,” one says. “My mental health is not the best right now.”

Some messages are attached to arrows.

After one camper wrote “depressed,” another drew an arrow to the word and wrote “Are you ok?” along with a heart.

The messages accompanying the arrows ask questions, check on their peers and offer hope.

One reads: “I will love you no matter what.”