Deanna's Discoveries: Helping grieving children

July 10, 2019 09:57 PM

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) -- On Wednesday, 40 kids clad in t-shirts and shorts filled a residence hall at Nazareth College in Rochester for their first day of camp. But this was not your average camp. This was a camp for children who are grieving.

As many News10NBC viewers know, my mother died of pancreatic cancer in April, and several editions of Deanna's Discoveries will explore stories about coping with grief. So I visited Camp Heartstrings, Camp Dreams and those young campers have something to teach us all.

My mother's service was a celebration of her life. But long after the songs are sung, the flowers received and your loved one is laid to rest, the grief remains. And when you're just a kid, grief is especially hard because grief is profoundly lonely. That's why this camp is so important.

"There's many other kids that lost a person in their life and many of them they were really close to, like I was," said 10-year-old Lily Thone, a camper attending the camp for a second year.

Lily says she no longer feels alone. But she still remembers well that summer day in 2016.  

"My mom got a text, and she started screaming, 'No, no, no, no, no!' And she started crying and everything," said Lily.

That text was from Lily's father. He was saying goodbye before he took his own life. Lily was just seven years old. She can talk about it now, but she says then it was really difficult. She cried "almost every day." So she attended Camp Heartstrings where kids learn our heartstrings connect us all, even after death.

"One of our first projects that we do is our bracelet," said Michele Allman, the camp's director. "It's our heartstring bracelet. It's a visual description of connections." 

Campers pick their favorite color and the favorite color of their lost loved one. The strings are then woven together, signifying the two are connected forever by heartstrings. The art and the games provide valuable life lessons.

"We want them to take away that grieving is okay," said Allman. "We want them to learn coping skills."

And they want them to have fun. The free annual camp is a collaboration between Visiting Nurse Service Hospice, Pittsford Youth Service and Dreams from Drake. And this camp, which provides a safe space for feelings, has something to teach us all.

"Talk about your grief. It's okay to cry in front of the children," said Allman. "We try to protect them, but they need to talk about it just like adults do."

So in our home on the 20th of each month, the day my mother died, we talk about the things we loved about her, and each of my children lights a candle in her memory. 

To other kids grieving, Lily insists it gets better.

"I felt sad, but as I started to grow so did my feelings, and I started understanding."

She began understanding her own grief, fear, and anger. And through the camp, she was finally able to say goodbye.

Registration for next year's Camp Heartstrings, Camp Dreams begins in February and usually, camp fills within two weeks of the opening of registration.

Rochester has a number of community resources for children. If your child is grieving, it is important to seek family support. 

VNS Hospice leaders say it's important for parents to recognize the needs of your grieving child, respond appropriately when your child's behavior is signaling that he/she may need professional help, and know how to talk to your child in an age appropriate way. They provide all that information and more here.

And books can provide tremendous comfort to children as to help them understand the finality of death. I have read a number of the books on this list to my own young children, and have found many have helped my 7-year-old process her understanding of death. 


Deanna Dewberry

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