College student Devin Rice was about 9 years old when he first went to Express Yourself camp. It was a day camp, so he didn’t have to pack a bag for the night. But he and the other vacationers arrived with something from home: their grief.

Rice lost a close family friend, a woman he loved as an aunt. It was his first experience with death, and “it was definitely very amazing because I knew her so much of my life. And suddenly she disappeared, ”said Rice, who is now 19 years old.

His mother explained to him that Express Yourself was a camp of sorrow, but his mind in elementary school did not know what it meant until he got there and met other children who were also experiencing loss. Some children, like him, have lost a loved one. Some were children of divorce. Others lost friends when their families moved. Great emotions for young children.

“It was cool to see other people who were in the same position as you,” said Rice, who lives in Kansas City, Kansas.

That summer, he found a way to express his pain thanks to a music therapist who introduced him to the therapeutic benefits of drumming. It was good. It was loud. He was hooked.

Despite the theme of the camp, “the party is not as unfortunate as it may seem. In fact, it’s a lot of fun, ”said Rice, who is finishing his first year at the University of Kansas. He is studying in high school.

Surely, nothing causes sadness in the camp Express Yourself, which for the 10th year it is organized by the House and Hospice of St. Luke and the Girl Scouts of North Kansas and Northwest Missouri.

This year’s camp, June 13 and 14, moved to the Prairie Schooner Girl Scout Camp in eastern Jackson County, on 176 acres of forest on a cliff overlooking the Little Blue River.

The line of events is traditional summer camps. Arts and crafts. Fishing. Singing. Walls. There was a zipline last year. Camp nicknames. Camp flags. Fun in the fresh air.

But here art class is art therapy, and shaking rain sticks is music therapy, expressing feelings too big to hold. And among the staff, all trained, there are professionals like Bruce Lizzie.

“We make it clear that we are talking about classes because children really learn through action, activity and play,” said Lacey, coordinator for loss at St. Luke’s Hospice. “I always tell my parents that in many ways they don’t even know they are in a grief camp.”

According to the National Alliance for Children’s Sorrows list, summer camps for children are common in most states. Some serve certain groups, such as children who have lost loved ones in the military.

The concept gained national prominence in 2014 when HBO made the documentary “One Last Hug” about one in Los Angeles.

In addition to the $ 50 camp for Express Yourself, the Kansas City Hospice and Solace House host a free grief children’s camp every summer on June 18 as part of a national program called Camp Erin Kansas City.

“Some kids just need a break to get out of the circle where they are,” Lacey said.

A few years ago, Canadian adviser Gabi Eyrew, who specializes in deaths and deaths, surveyed 100 adults who lost one or both parents by age 16. She found many “strange feelings of guilt from people who were not taught to grieve properly.”

Lacey said parents sometimes try to protect their children from grief because they feel it is too difficult for them to cope.

“I’ll just talk about parents, we’re not very good at death,” said Lacey, who is giving his business card to parents who want to talk more after camp. “We are not in favor of death. We don’t like endings, we don’t like farewells. We will do our best to avoid grief.

“But if we adults don’t tolerate grief very well, we can’t expect our children to cope with it so well.”

“Not just mini-adults”

But grief is unavoidable, especially now that so many people, including children, are struggling with the mental health consequences of losing loved ones, social ties and relationships during a pandemic.

Grief in children is manifested in many physical and emotional ways, says the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Hyperactivity can be a sign of grief. Abdominal pain. Headache. Inability to swallow due to a lump in the throat. Everyone can signal that the child is having difficulty.

They may over-imitate the deceased or repeatedly say they want to join the deceased. They may abandon friends, start bad school, or even refuse to go at all – also classic signs of depression.

“They can all say words, but I don’t think they know how to express their feelings,” said Rice, who now works as a counselor at the camp every summer. “Some of them may say, ‘Oh, I’m sad, oh, that upsets me.’

But they can’t articulate why, Rice said.

Age and stage of development have something to do with how children endure grief. Children are “not just mini-adults,” Lacey said.

For example, young children may regress and temporarily behave more infantilely, talking to babies again or even urinating in bed at night, even if they are accustomed to the potty.

Preschoolers have no words to express their emotions, so they can feel a lot of confusion, said Roslin Celia, a music therapist at St. Luke’s Hospice who worked at three Express Yourself camps and will return for a fourth next month.

In this age group, there’s a lot of what Celia called “magical thinking,” the idea that death isn’t eternal and reversible, like cartoon characters who bite the dust but suddenly come back to life.

Elementary students are beginning to think more about death as adults, “but they still believe it will never happen to them or to anyone they know,” the psychiatric academy said.

Some children may blame themselves for the death of their loved one or feel guilty.

Perhaps they said or did something before the death of a loved one that makes them feel responsible for the death – a reaction often seen by child psychologists.

As children get older, they begin to ask deeper questions, sometimes of a religious or philosophical nature, such as wondering what happens to a person after his death, Celia said.

Grief can also manifest itself in aggressive behavior in older children, she said, “especially when there is a sense of hopelessness or helplessness.”

“They are sustainable”

Express Yourself Camp is only two eight-hour days, so classes and mood are kept light. Still a summer camp. But, as Rice was convinced 10 years ago, vacationers know from the beginning that unites them all.

“These kids connect and they’re resilient,” Lacey said. “But they need the opportunity to know how to move forward with this grief and not feel guilty or in any way responsible for it.”

Everyone mourns differently. Some children are definitely quieter than others. Some children become quite annoyed, as if trying to anticipate resentment.

Others behave as if nothing is wrong, Rice said.

Celia is using group music sessions to break this emotional ice, whether it’s children playing instruments, rewriting lyrics to popular songs – maybe this summer they’ll remake “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from the Disney movie “Encanto” – or just listen to music.

“Sometimes, when they have a hard day, they will either look for music that lifts them up or lets them sit,” Celia said.

Lacey makes it clear to parents that counselors are treated “very easily”. They do not encourage conversations to which the child is not ready. Lacey can read the room.

Over the years, some of the most heartfelt moments took place away from the flock of giggling tourists in quiet one-on-one conversations.

Rice watched as the children quickly transformed.

On the first day vacationers seem restrained and can even laugh a little nervously why they are all there. But at the closing ceremony, learning more about each other’s stories, “everything is cool with each other,” he said. “They all know each other as each other, mostly.”

If nothing else, Rice said, camp is fun. “But I think it definitely teaches kids good skills to deal with problems that will stay with them for a lifetime,” he said.

“All these years I have not beaten drums. But I’m in the KU orchestra. “

According to the National Alliance for Children’s Sorrows list, summer camps for children are common in most states.

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