Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
E-mail this article
Print this Article

One way to help children cope with the overwhelming feelings of loss associated with the death of a parent is to share those feelings with others who have gone through similar tragedies.

To that end, Hospice of St. Mary’s for more than a dozen years has hosted Camp Sunrise — a weekend getaway for children to bond and learn coping techniques to address their grief.

“I lost my mom,” Patricia Poole, 14, of Lexington Park said while painting a rainbow on a banner Saturday morning. About two years ago her mother, Donna Mercilliott, died of cancer.

She and her sister Rachel, 16, came to Camp Sunrise again this year after having their experience there last year.

Each year, one of the activities for the campers is painting horses at a nearby farm as a way to release their feelings and “to get the grief out,” she said. Patricia said she particularly enjoyed that experience.

Patricia said it was hard to accept her mother’s death at first.

“It’s kind of like not real,” she said. It is at times still difficult for her to cope, but by talking about her mother’s death and her own feelings with others who have lost loved ones, she has found some sense of relief.

Hospice counselors said the camp can work wonders for children, who want and need ways to express their feelings over their losses and are often quick to share their grief with others who can understand.

Painting the horses was just one of the activities for the participants at Camp Sunrise. There were also arts and crafts projects, storytimes, a nature walk, bonfire and sports activities.

Caroline Cavanagh, 12, worked with Karen Dillon, one of several volunteer mentors at the camp, to decorate a memory box.

“You kind of put your memories into it about your loved one,” Cavanagh said.

Cavanagh’s mother died of cancer about two years ago. She, her two sisters and their father will have family meetings sometimes to share their feelings, the girl said.

During camp, the kids chat, both formally and informally, about their situations.

“We all talk about our feelings. It kind of makes you feel good afterwards,” Cavanagh said.

Dillon said she volunteers because she has lost family members and friends herself, including her father. She understands how difficult it can be to cope with the death of a loved one, even as an adult. She knows the feelings can be even harder to manage for children.

“It’s so rewarding ... You can relate to what they go through,” Dillon said of volunteering at the camp. “It’s humbling.”

Seeing a smile through the grief

About 22 campers ages 6 to 17 attended last weekend. Most had a parent who died; a few were there because of a grandparent.

This is the second year the camp was held at Camp Maria near Leonardtown, and it seems to be a good fit, said Esther Palma, bereavement coordinator with hospice.

Along with cabins and plenty of open space, the camp has a swimming pool and a view of Breton Bay. The pleasant, serene environment matches the objectives of the camp, she said.

The camp is successful because of the volunteer mentors, and because sponsors, including the Leonardtown Lions Club and 2nd District Kids and Community, offset nearly all of the cost to families, Palma said.

For the first time this year, the camp included a workshop for parents to teach them about how to support their children as they cope with grief. Parents could stay overnight on Saturday and participate in several family activities.

Palma said many of the parents wanted to know how to figure out whether behavioral and other problems were simply normal developmental issues or related to their child’s grief. Talking to other parents and counselors seemed to help the parents grasp whether their own child’s behavior was out of the ordinary or not, she said.

The loss of a parent “could be long term or it could be sudden and traumatic,” Palma said. The death of a loved one in any way will take its toll, but if those close to the person were able to prepare for the death can make a difference, she said.

“Unfinished business is always an issue with traumatic and sudden loss,” Palma said.

Diana Stewart of Hollywood lost her husband to cancer three years ago. Her 17-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter have both attended Camp Sunrise.

Her husband died within several months of his first diagnosis, she said.

“Hospice has been the greatest resource,” she said, adding that she refers people to the organization often.

Grief counseling is different from other forms of counseling, Stewart said, and the workers at hospice are able to communicate well with both adults and children.

“It’s being with other people who are walking your walk,” she said.

Richard Poole, Patricia and Rachel’s father, attended the parent workshop while his daughters participated in the camp.

“There’s a sense that you’re not alone,” he said. Hearing that other parents have similar problems and concerns about their kids has helped him think about if he is making the right choices.

Poole said he has started seeing some acceptance from his girls, who regularly attend a teen grief support group through hospice.

“They feel, almost relief, at being around children that experienced their own grief,” he said.

He said the hospice services have been extremely helpful to his family since his wife died, and that he encourages others to give donations to the nonprofit.

“I can’t think of a more worthy cause then helping the people surviving cope with their loss,” he said.

Hospice of St. Mary’s is working to create a teen center next to the hospice house in Callaway and is accepting donations now, Palma said.

After a weekend of laughter and sharing grief, the camp ended with the release of butterflies Sunday.

“It’s emotional for the entire family,” Palma said. “All of them were in tears.”