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Children Learn Coping Skills At Grief Camp

Cheri Lawson
Ashlyn Sergent and Kaitlyn Schuler make their way up the climbing wall at grief camp.

Twelve- year- old Kaitlyn Schuler and her two younger siblings have been living with their grandparents in Maysville. The seventh-grader says her papaw died of cancer in June. She couldn’t comprehend the loss. Schuler said, “ It was just so much of a shock that he was gone.  He was like a dad to me because my dad had been out of my life and my mom had been out of my life. It was heartbreaking to feel him just go. “

Schuler has been getting support with her grief by talking with Peg Lynch, community services facilitator at Hospice of Hope, a non-profit organization based in Maysville .

On this day Schuler is attending the Mountain Pathway grief day camp designed for six to twelve-year-olds.  Lynch and her staff have been running the camp for 11 years. The staff is creating a safe place where they help the children process their grief through activities like music and art.

Lynch is easing into the day of activities with 10 children, including Kaitlyn. The camp is located at a retreat center on 145 acres in Hillsboro, Ohio. The day begins in the lodge where each child does a brief introduction and then selects a strip of colored construction paper and writes the name of their loved one who’s died to create a paper chain.

Credit Cheri Lawson
Each child writes the name of their loved one who's died. The paper chain shows how the children at grief camp are linked together.

"The thing that I find most is that kids when they're on their own, feel much more at ease expressing their loss than they do when they’re with parents because they’re afraid they’re going to upset their parents if they talk about it because the've seen it. And when I talk to the parents they say they don’t want to talk to their kids because they’re afraid to upset them. So it gives them somebody to talk to, somebody to interact with, with regard to their loss,” Lynch said.

After reading a story about grief, Lynch divides the group of 10 into two teams. She asks them to make what she calls “quick lists” of fast- food restaurants with drive- through windows, then lists of all the animated Disney movies, and finally a list of ways to cope with grief.

The campers make a brief stop at the snack table to munch on Goldfish and cookies. Then everyone heads outside for the next activity, a 50-foot-high, three -sided climbing wall that sits in a green pasture under large trees.

Lynch and her staff cheer the kids on as they climb the wall two-by-two fully harnessed. Jasmine Barbee, grief support services bereavement liaison with Hospice of Hope, said many people think grief camp is going to be sad and depressing but the kids usually have a great time. She said climbing the wall is a team-building activity. “Because it teaches you that you need to kind of rely on other people to motivate you through your grief. And especially with this exercise you need a lot of motivation so you can try to make it as far as you can,” Barbee said.

As the rain starts to fall the campers are guided back inside. Part of the day is spent making masks. Each child is given a mask and instructed to paint the outside with colors representing the face they show to the world and the inside with colors representing the feelings they don’t always show. 

Credit Cheri Lawson
Ashlyn Sergent is painting her mask. The colors on the outside represent the feelings she shows to the world. The colors on the inside of the mask represent the feelings she holds inside.

Ten- year- old Ashlyn Sergent is grieving the loss of her mom’s best friend who was like a family member. She shares her mask with the group. 

According to Crossroads Hospice Charitable Foundation, an estimated 20 percent of children will have a close loved one die before that child’s 18th birthday. Pediatric psychologist and associate University of Kentucky Professor Meghan Marsac said grief camps are a place children can feel understood and like they have something in common with other kids and other families.

“Often kids end up feeling kind of isolated or alone and feel like their friends don’t understand what they’re going through. A grief camp that provides them a place to feel understood from other people who have had similar situations,” said Marsac.

Arts and crafts, swimming, wall climbing and, zip-lining are some of the activities at Mountain Pathway camp to help support the kids who’ve lost someone.

As this year’s camp comes to a close the group of 10 children who’ve spent the day learning what grief is and how to cope with it share a song at the picnic with their friends and family.

Credit Cheri Lawson
Jasmine Barbee, Ashlyn Sergent, Kaitlyn Schuler, and Peg Lynch are rooting for the other campers as they climb the 50 foot wall.

Hospice of Hope is based in Maysville. The non-profit serves six Kentucky counties and six Ohio counties. Peg Lynch is community services facilitator and runs Mountain Pathway grief camp for kids.

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Contact : cherilawson@eku.ed   twitter:   @cherilawson @889weku

Cheri is a broadcast producer, anchor, reporter, announcer and talk show host with over 25 years of experience. For three years, she was the local host of Morning Edition on WMUB-FM at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Cheri produced and hosted local talk shows and news stories for the station for nine years. Prior to that, she produced and co-hosted a local talk show on WVXU, Cincinnati for nearly 15 years. Cheri has won numerous awards from the Public Radio News Directors Association, the Ohio and Kentucky Associated Press, and both the Cincinnati and Ohio chapters of the Society for Professional Journalists.
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