Good Grief Camp helps kids cope with loss of mil­i­tary par­ent

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Gabriella Bos­ton

Camp sea­son is in full swing, and chil­dren and teenagers all across the na­tion are en­joy­ing ev­ery­thing from rock ‘n’ roll camp to soc­cer camp. Carolyn Hor­ton, 16, of Hay­mar­ket, Va., is no ex­cep­tion, al­though her camp, at least su­per­fi­cially, sounds less up­lift­ing than learn­ing how to jam like Hen­drix or bend it like Beck­ham.

She at­tends the Good Grief Camp, put on by TAPS (Tragedy As­sis­tance Pro­gram for Sur­vivors), a Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based non­profit group in­tended for mil­i­tary chil­dren who have lost a par­ent. Carolyn’s dad, a ma­jor in the Army, died in 1999 of gas­troin­testi­nal can­cer. But con­trary to what out­siders might think, Carolyn can’t wait for the an­nual three-day camp, which she has at­tended since 1999, to be­gin.

“A lot of my friends come ev­ery year,” Carolyn says. “We can share joy and sor­row with­out judg­ment. The main thing is that we don’t feel alone; be­cause of what we’ve gone through, we have a deep con­nec­tion.”

The main Good Grief Camp, at­tended by about 250 chil­dren, takes place each Me­mo­rial Day in the Wash­ing­ton area, but through­out the sum­mer, mini­camps, at­tended by 20 to 30 chil­dren, are held all across the na­tion, says Tina Saari, camp or­ga­nizer. The main camp, which also pro­vides some ser­vices and ac­tiv­i­ties for griev­ing adults, is $50 a day per per­son, and the mini­camps are free.

“Some kids, when they come to camp, have never even told any­body that their par­ent has died,” says Mrs. Saari, whose hus­band cur­rently serves in Iraq as an Army he­li­copter pilot. “They don’t know how peo­ple are go­ing to re­act, they don’t know who to trust and they don’t want to be judged.”

At camp, though, by the end of the day, the chil­dren are open­ing up and shar­ing, she says.

“Many of them fi­nally feel they don’t have to watch what they’re say­ing,” Mrs. Saari says. “They can speak and ex­press them­selves freely. It’s the first time they feel like they can re­ally open up with­out fear of reper­cus­sions.”

The peer sup­port — which Carolyn men­tions of­ten — plays a big role in this grad­ual abil­ity to open up, Mrs. Saari says. But the camp staff also em­ploys var­i­ous staff-led work­shops and ac­tiv­i­ties to teach chil­dren to cope with their loss and lone­li­ness, man­age their anger and find pro­duc­tive ways to ex­press them­selves.

A fa­vorite ac­tiv­ity is the bal­loon re­lease, she says. Chil­dren write a let­ter to their de­ceased par­ent — mostly dads — tie it to a bal­loon and then let the bal­loon drift off to­ward the heav­ens.

“That was my fa­vorite part the first year,” Carolyn says. “I don’t know what I wrote ex­cept that I missed him.”

Court­ney Nyren, whose ex-hus­band, Nathaniel Nyren, was serv­ing in the mil­i­tary when he died in a 2004 car ac­ci­dent, says her daugh­ter, Brooke, now 10, has ben­e­fited greatly from the camp.

“Now she knows that she can write him a let­ter at any time and that she can go to her room and have a quiet con­ver­sa­tion with him when­ever she wants to,” says Ms. Nyren of Re­ston, Va. “She knows he’s al­ways with her.”

Brooke, who has at­tended the camp three years in a row, says she re­ally likes all the spe­cial events and guests that are part of the camp. This year, the Rin­gling Bros. and Bar­num & Bai­ley Cir­cus sent a troupe to en­ter­tain and ed­u­cate the chil­dren.

“I re­ally loved spin­ning the plates,” Brooke says. “They taught us how to do it.”

The troupe also taught the chil­dren how to build hu­man pyra­mids and how to jug­gle — all ac­tiv­i­ties in­tended to build trust and con­fi­dence, Mrs. Saari says.

“We do ev­ery­thing from fun crafts to cir­cle time, where we talk about grief and loss,” she says. “We tell kids to re­lieve their anger by scream­ing into a pil­low, us­ing a stress ball or writ­ing down their feel­ings. Ev­ery­thing we do is in­tended to help them cope.”

One ac­tiv­ity — the pa­per bag ex­er­cise — en­cour­ages the chil­dren to ex­plore hid­den feel­ings and thoughts, she says. On the inside of a pa­per bag, the chil­dren are asked to write how they feel. On the out­side they’re asked to scrib­ble down how they be­lieve they’re per­ceived by the out­side world.

“There’s of­ten a big dis­crep­ancy,” Mrs. Saari says. “One girl, who is 14, wrote on the out­side that she’s ex­pected to feel and act like a teen. But on the inside she wrote that she feels like she’s still 3.”

Ms. Nyren says get­ting the kind of peer- and staff-led sup­port that TAPS pro­vides and learn­ing how to cope with grief and anger are cru­cial.

“If chil­dren don’t learn how to ex­press their feel­ings and open up, the re­sults can be dev­as­tat­ing,” she says. “Bad grades, get­ting mixed up with the wrong crowd and act­ing out, par­tic­u­larly to­ward the sur­viv­ing par­ent” are po­ten­tial neg­a­tive out­comes, she says, adding that she has ben­e­fited from TAPS adult pro­grams.

As has Carolyn’s mother, Ros­alie Hor­ton, now a peer-men­tor.

“Once the ini­tial pain — the crush­ing pain — passed, I started reach­ing out to oth­ers who were go­ing through the same thing,” Mrs. Hor­ton says. “I told them they could call me at any time — even if it’s 2 or 3 in the morn­ing — and I would al­ways lis­ten. [. . .] They know I can re­late be­cause I have been there — what it’s like to feel com­pletely alone.”

The chil­dren can be­come each other’s men­tors, too. Brooke, for ex­am­ple, was a “mini-men­tor” last year, her mom says. The chil­dren also are paired with a grown-up men­tor who’s a mem­ber of the armed forces.

“I wanted my son to have a male role model, some­one who’s in the mil­i­tary,” says Ca­role Hil­ton of Ch­e­sa­peake, Va., whose son, Ryan, 9, has at­tended the camp to­gether with his two sis­ters for the past few years. “They’re such good peo­ple with good val­ues,” she says, adding that her fam­ily’s iden­tity still is strongly tied to the mil­i­tary even if she and the chil­dren no longer live on a base. Her hus­band, Navy Lt. Lawrence D. Hil­ton, died three years ago of heart dis­ease.

Nick Mintz, a se­nior air­man at Shaw Air Force Base, near Sumter, S.C., and a TAPS men­tor, says he en­cour­ages chil­dren to open up by shar­ing his own ex­pe­ri­ences of loss.

“This past year my grand­mother died. So, I talk about what that was like for me and hope that they will share their own loss,” says Se­nior Air­man Mintz, who has been a men­tor to Carolyn’s brother, Tommy, for the past two years.

“I’m al­ways amazed — once the chil­dren open up and talk about the death of their loved one — at how strong they are,” he says, adding that his and Tommy’s con­ver­sa­tion and re­la­tion­ship are on­go­ing, mostly via e-mail.

As sum­mer is near­ing an end, so are the TAPS camps. But many peo­ple are al­ready look­ing for­ward to next year’s main and mini­camps.

“I plan to be there next year and the year af­ter that,” Se­nior Air­man Mintz says. “As long as I’m not in the desert.”

Carolyn says her pain is no longer as in­tense as it used to be, but she says she still plans to at­tend the camp for the fore­see­able fu­ture.

“I don’t hurt as much, but I still miss him,” she says, her blue eyes tear­ing up. “It’s hard when you think about all things he won’t be there for,” she says and goes on to men­tion big events in a teenager’s life: He missed her 16th birth­day, he will miss her high school grad­u­a­tion, he has missed her many mu­si­cal and artis­tic achieve­ments and he hasn’t seen her blos­som as a soc­cer player. (She used to be a timid goalie more pre­oc­cu­pied with pick­ing dan­de­lions and watch­ing but­ter­flies than de­fend­ing the goal; now she’s a skilled mid­fielder.)

Then a smile spreads across her face and she con­cludes:

“As long as I feel I have some­thing to give back, I’ll be go­ing [to camp],” she says. “I know what it’s like in the be­gin­ning when you don’t trust any­one, and I also know what it’s like when you fi­nally open up and re­al­ize it’s OK to trust peo­ple again.”

Katie Falkenberg/The Wash­ing­ton Times

Some­body to lean on: Bayleigh Dostie, 7, talks with her men­tor, Pfc. James Bow­man, as she gets ready for the day’s events at Good Grief Camp in Ar­ling­ton, Va. The camp helps chil­dren cope with los­ing a loved one in the mil­i­tary, in­clud­ing in the re­cent Afghanistan and Iraq con­flicts.

Katie Falkenberg/The Wash­ing­ton Times

Joseph Jones, 15, of Vir­ginia Beach, Va., and his men­tor, Capt. Pete Mask, take a break to talk dur­ing a tour of Ar­ling­ton Ceme­tery. Prior to the tour, the group had lunch at Fort Myer and vis­ited the Cais­son Sta­bles, which houses the horses that pull cais­sons dur­ing mil­i­tary fu­ner­als at the fa­mous ceme­tery.

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