A Healthy Way for Kids to Grieve

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Camp Angel Wings gives children a safe haven to mourn the loss of loved ones

It was arts and crafts time at Camp Angel Wings when a 10-year-old girl began to cry. Tears fell onto her picture’s wet paint, creating wisps of colorful puddles. Asked if she needed help, the little girl said no; she just needed to cry. For the first time since losing a parent, she felt strong enough to let her sadness out — and she wanted to save those tears as a reminder that it’s OK to be sad.

“Sometimes the most amazing things happen when you least expect them,” explains Joanne Gregory, Director of Community Affairs for Southcoast Visiting Nurse Association (VNA), the sponsor of Camp Angel Wings.

The community comes together

Supported by generous donors in the South Coast community and free to all participants, Camp Angel Wings is a unique two-day summer camp for children ages 6 to 15 who have lost a loved one. The camp, which will be held July 15 and 16 this year, welcomes about 100 children each summer. Penny Gosson, Volunteer Coordinator for Southcoast VNA, co-manages the camp, although she says the nearly 100 volunteers who help plan and facilitate Camp Angel Wings are the “real stars.”

Volunteer staffers include hospice nurses, licensed social workers, chaplains and caring members of the community. “Our volunteer counselors have themselves experienced loss, which makes them especially well-suited to provide credible, compassionate support to our campers. These volunteers understand and support the grieving needs of our young campers,” Gosson says.

A freeing experience

A structured schedule of activities in a safe, nonjudgmental environment provides emotional and physical support, which helps children and teens open up about their loss, express their emotions and remember a loved one without feeling pressured.

Grief-related learning activities often focus on time with fellow campers. “These children learn that they are not alone in their journey through grieving. They feel less different and less isolated in their grief,” Gosson explains.

Camaraderie is vital, Gregory adds. “Children often suppress their feelings because they feel awkward showing emotions. But over the years, we’ve learned that children who have no one to talk to and can’t express their sadness often start to act out at school or at home. Some even experience deep depression. It’s so important that these children know it’s normal to feel grief and share those feelings.”

Of course, Camp Angel Wings mixes in plenty of traditional summer camp activities, like swimming and arts and crafts. “It would be overwhelming for the children if every activity centered on grief,” Gregory says.

A favorite of the campers is playing with the therapy pets that visit camp. Campers run and play fetch with the dogs or help groom and care for the animals. Gregory points out how this cleverly blends playtime with healing therapy. Young children often find it easier to read books about grief to their favorite pet, and older campers seem more open to discussing their grief while holding or petting an animal. “Pets are nonjudgmental, so it takes the stress off the children and helps us really reach them,” Gregory says. “This program is truly life changing for children whose lives have already changed so much.”

Camp Angel Wings will be held on July 15 and 16, 2017. Space is limited, so submit applications no later than June 1, 2017. For questions or to obtain an application, call 508-973-3426 or email campangelwings@southcoast.org. If multiple children from one family are applying to attend Camp Angel Wings, each child needs a separate application.