Losing a loved one is difficult at any age, but it is especially hard on a child or teen. Although you may have the instinct to shield young people from grief, it is important to help them process their grief by answering questions and having open, honest communication, even though approaching the conversation can be difficult and emotional.

Grief is a normal, natural response to facing a terminal disease or loss, and there is no right or wrong way to grieve. It is a unique, personal experience that can impact a child physically and emotionally. It’s important to know there are resources that can help children cope and work through their emotions.

Bereavement programs are available to people living with a terminal illness, their loved ones and caregivers as part of hospice care. These programs include guidance and encouragement to help loved ones successfully navigate through their grief journey through resources such as support groups, phone calls, letters, visits and informational materials like books, videos or handouts.

Bereavement camps are an additional resource for children and teens to experience a nurturing environment where they can talk through emotions and their experience with other children going through a loss, as well as education on coping tools so they are more prepared when returning to life after camp.

Camp I Believe, a program supported by Kindred Hospice and the Kindred Hospice Foundations, provides free support to grieving children and families across the country. Camp I Believe was developed to meet the emotional, spiritual and physical needs of campers, while empowering them to have fun again. 

“We have campers who come who might have lost a brother, sister, friend, teacher. They come from across the country,” Courtney Butler, AVP of Kindred Clinical Support Services, said. “Camp I Believe is an opportunity for them to come together, identify with other kids who have lost someone as well, and really encourage them to tell their story of loss.”

Camp I Believe is held each year in multiple locations, and each camp has a different and unique approach to providing therapeutic interventions. Activities focus on providing campers with the opportunity to express feelings and tell their story in a safe environment. The camps are organized and operated through the time and talents of dedicated employees and trained volunteers, including social workers, managers of volunteer services and bereavement and spiritual care coordinators.

Camp provides opportunity for campers to be “kids” again and to identify with peers who have also experienced the death of a loved one. Many of the children who come to camp attend for the opportunity to have fun and connect with other children their age. Traditional camp activities include a variety of field activities, arts and crafts, therapeutic play and grief groups, such as:

  • Swimming
  • Field games
  • Crafts
  • Kayaking/canoeing
  • Rope courses/zip-lining
  • Fishing
  • Bonfire with s’mores

All activities, whether directly or indirectly, help campers to establish a sense of community and provide team-building opportunities. Activities place an emphasis on personal growth through creative expression and through establishing positive relationships with peers.

“When I came to camp I was angry and I didn’t know that was a normal emotion associated with grief. I thought I was grieving wrong,” Tori Hanauer, cabin leader and former camper, said. “I left camp with tools to deal with that anger, and now as a young adult I still carry those tools around. And I experience new grief, but I still have those tools at my disposal to do life.”

Camp counselors with children by a lake

Camp I Believe also teaches campers the importance of using the opportunity to memorialize and reflect on why they’re at camp and who they lost.

“These kids are experiencing a community through grief in a way that is productive that they might not have felt before,” Courtney said. “You come out with kids that are able to articulate their feelings for the first time because you’ve given them the language to do so.”    

Courtney said that as the course of the weekend goes on, campers start to show a change, bonding with one another, putting themselves out there and having fun. Camp I Believe helps the campers know they’re not alone, but also helps them actually have fun again when many have had to grow up too soon.

“I know they’re going through the same thing as me. And I want to get them to heal, like me,” one camper said.

As longtime hospice providers, we understand the unique needs of grieving children and their families. If you know a child or teen who could benefit from the Camp I Believe experience, please visit our website to view a schedule of camps or download an application.

Camp I Believe is free for participants because of generous support to the Kindred Hospice Foundation from individuals, organizations and the local communities we serve. If you have any concerns about how your child is coping, talk to their pediatrician or school counselor about your concerns.

If you have questions about hospice care or making healthcare decisions, call us 1.866.KINDRED to speak with a registered nurse 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

By Blair Klayko