Sunday, October 15, 2000

Camp helps kids confront death of loved ones




By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        CARROLLTON, Ky. — Chelsie Ast and 35 other children huddle around a lodge fire, their carefully crafted letters to deceased family members clutched in their hands.

        In a moment, camp counselor James Ellis will collect the letters and place them in a basket. He'll put the basket on the fire, and the flames will catch.

        As the smoke rises, the children envision the wisps bearing messages to loved ones in heaven. They sob and reach for one another's hugs.

        “I always knew it would happen, but I didn't think it would happen that soon,” says Chelsie, 12, whose whole life has changed since her mother died from a blood illness in July. “I just wasn't ready for it. (This camp) makes me feel not as alone.”

        This is Camp Great Escape, one of only two camps within easy driving distance of Greater Cincinnati for children dealing with death.

        Seven in 10 children will lose a parent, brother, sister or grandparent by the time they're 18, experts say. But until recently, many were expected to simply be brave, not cry and suppress the past.

        Camps like Great Escape are changing that and adding to a better understanding about childhood loss. Rather than treating a child's grief as the pint-sized version of an adult's, these camps focus on fun and self-expression — two ingredients important for children to heal.

        “It's easy to overlook them as

        grievers, (but) the child is going through a life change,” says Todd Teismann, executive director for Norwood-based Fernside Center for Grieving Children.

        “It's normal for a child to have some sort of reaction, (including) questions or lack of sleep. Sometimes, when a child shows a reaction, the parent thinks, "Oh no, my child is going to be scarred for life!'”

        Without help, some children can mourn and move on. But for others, their extreme pain can lead to drug use or depression, even suicide attempts.

        “The death serves as a life-changing marker,” Mr. Teismann said.

        “If people think of it in that way, it helps to normalize the reaction that children have. (The camps are) not to fix their reaction but to guide them through ... and express their reactions.”

        The camps are finding a niche, too. Just 2 years old, Camp Great Escape's enrollment has soared: Thirty-six kids are at this three-day weekend camp, up from 17 last year.

        They have lost their mothers, fathers, siblings and grandparents for reasons that are both mundane and horrific: cancer, old age, murder, and car crashes.

        This is their weekend.

        This year's campers came from throughout the Tristate. Late last month, the 6- to 13-year-olds boarded a bus in Burlington and headed toward camp. They soon pulled out their pictures and began talking about the parents, siblings and grandparents they lost.

        The camp is a wooded expanse with trails meandering toward a main lodge, cabins and an open field. Upon arrival, the children kick up autumn leaves as they lug their gear toward “villages” named Tanda, Uguku, Wohelo, and Kinunka. The air is damp, thick with mosquitoes.

        The children settle into cabins. Some again pull out their pictures and talk into the night.
       

Masks of pain
               After breakfast, the children branch out for various activities. Nick Deevers, 13, of Florence, is one of the older boys to gather under a tarp to make “masks of grief.”

        Art therapist Whitney Clap asks them to ponder grief. Losing a loved one, she says, is like suffering a knife wound that you need to heal internally.

        The boys practice karate kicks, razz each other and sing, in profound mockery, John Denver's “Sunshine on My Shoulders.”

        But they soon quiet. They swirl their paintbrushes in pools of red, black and white, brushing them across the blank masks.

        Their creations hint at pain, confusion and a need to play dual roles. They draw lines down the middle of their masks. Some coat one color over the other. One boy sketches a diamond over an eye, the ultimate sign of a jester.

        Nick works intently, brushing a thick coat of white over his mask and then streaking it with black jagged lines from the eyes down. He places it on his face.

        Nick's dad died in May. Bobby Deevers, 42, was a PGA golf professional. He was having a CT scan when he suffered a heart attack. The boy never said goodbye.

        Since then, Nick's grades have floundered, his mother says. She worries about his angry outbursts. The boy once punched a chair so hard he broke his hand.

        But Nick doesn't cry.

        “It's hard for me to cry,” he says. “You have to break my neck ... or just hit me hard in the arm. You've got a shot then.”

        Hospice of Northern Kentucky, Linnemann Funeral Homes and St. Elizabeth Medical Center founded Camp Great Escape. It is similar to other bereavement camps across the nation, including Camp WeBelong near Clarksville, Ohio, which is sponsored by Hospice of Cincinnati and the Fernside Center for Grieving Children in Norwood.

        Children share their grief, learn about death and express their feelings in positive ways. They realize other children are grieving, too, and that it's OK to play while missing a loved one.

        The focus on children's grief emerged in the mid-1980s, when child experts and hospice officials realized that youngsters weren't getting enough attention when their family members died.

        They were being told to keep stiff upper lips, and to quash their feelings and memories. Often, these tactics prolonged and delayed their mourning.
       

Climbing stones
               The children play. They sing songs at lunch, wear Kool-Aid smiles, run in a field and rehearse for a play to be performed before relatives.

        Climbing a 30-foot tower studded with mock rocks is the most popular activity. They line up to be harnessed and helmeted. They want to conquer.

        Julie Felthaus, 7, of Florence, gets her turn. She and her sister, Maria, 11, who is also at the camp, lost their mother to cancer in May.

        Julie moves slowly up the wall. Her hands are tiny. Her legs are short. For her, the mock rocks are so far apart.

        As she inches upward, Kevin Keith, 8, of Burlington, zips down. He already has touched the wall's top.

        The boy, whose dad and grandmother have died, also struggled while climbing. When he reaches the ground, he smiles and is congratulated.

        The crowd at the tower's base returns to cheering for Julie.

        “Julie, you can do it! C'mon, Julie!” they cry.

        When she, too, touches ground — goal accomplished — she gives a broad smile.

        “It felt cool,” she said.

        Later that day, the questions come fast for Dr. Rita Watkins, a family doctor with an Edgewood practice. She provides stark truth.

        “If your loved ones die, will they come back?”

        “No, they won't come back.”

        “Can you catch cancer?”

        “No, you absolutely can't.”

        “Why do people die?”

        “That's a difficult question.”

        Afterward, Dr. Watkins said it is tough to give such point-blank responses.

        “But some of them are suffering because they haven't been leveled with. I just think it's of great importance to try to say something,” she said.
       

The Ungame
               The children continue expressing themselves. They play the Ungame, advancing on a game board if they share something about their lost loved one. They make “feeling” puppets, which are supposed to convey their emotions.

        The children make drums.

        They are given colorful wooden frames, upon which they memorialize their lost loved ones. Nick commemorates his dad by writing “greatest golfer” and “best dad ever.”

        Others simply draw hearts and flowers and write messages such as “I miss you, Dad,” “He was very sweet,” and “My mother called me sugar babe.”

        They are in the lodge. The Phil Collins song “You'll Be in My Heart” is playing. They talk about their loved ones as they wrap clear packaging tape — as tight as a drum — around the frames.

        They are told they are about to participate in one of Camp Great Escape's most sacred rituals. The children form a circle. They receive colorful sticks. They hold them in the air until the organizers give them the OK.

        They are children. They drum. With fervor. Their noise, rising to the rafters in a primal crescendo, is meant to honor the dead and release their pent-up emotions.

        They are children. They drum. Beyond the moment they are supposed to stop.
       

An angry butterfly
               On the last morning, the children have recovered from the the ritual burning of their letters.

        They line up to perform the play The Queen has Died and Nothing is the Same for their relatives.

        There are Nick and Chelsie, who play scared lions; Julie Felthaus, an angry butterfly; and Kevin Keith, a worried blue jay. Others are confused owls, sad monkeys, lonely wolves and guilty raccoons.

        The children's relatives videotape the play. Some wipe away tears.

        Nick doesn't look at his mother until the end.

        She is pleased to see him up there with other youngsters. He worries her. He took to heart his father's request to take care of the family upon his death.

        Julia Deevers knows it is too much for the young teen.

        “That's exactly what Nick can't do,” she said.

        But she has hope.

        “I was proud of him. I don't want him to not cope with it and start drinking or doing drugs later. I want him to learn to open up.”

        Nick carries his belongings. He is anxious for home. While his mother lingers in the lodge, he shuffles down the leaf-strewn trails that will lead him to the parking lot, highway, Florence and the future.

        His step has a spring.

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