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For children grieving loss, a summer camp helps find connection and healing

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

An estimated 1 in 12 children in the U.S. will experience the death of a parent or sibling before age 18. A national network of bereavement programs for children called Camp Erin has supported grieving kids for over 20 years. Craig LeMoult of member station GBH spent a day with one of those camps in Boston. And we'll note, there is a mention of suicide in this report.

CRAIG LEMOULT, BYLINE: A group of about 35 children, ranging in age from 5 to 18, stand in a circle along with parents and volunteers for Camp Erin, Boston.

LEMOULT: The camp's director, Jennifer Wiles, gives instructions.

JENNIFER WILES: So step into the circle if you have lost your mom.

LEMOULT: Several kids and adults step towards the center.

WILES: Step into the circle if you've lost a sibling, a brother or a sister.

LEMOULT: With each added relation, the group draws closer together in their shared grief. All of them have lost someone close.

WILES: So we're going to spend today talking about that person, remembering that person, honoring that person, checking in about how we're doing with this hard thing that has happened to us.

LEMOULT: There are 34 Camp Erin programs around the country. And ordinarily, they happen in the summer with traditional camp activities like canoeing. But this year, the Boston camp added this additional day at the Museum of Science.

LOU: My name is Lou, and I'm your all's grief counselor.

LEMOULT: The kids break into smaller groups and start out by taking turns answering icebreaker questions like favorite ice cream flavor.

JJ: My name is J.J., and rainbow sherbet.

LEMOULT: Lou opens it up for the kids to suggest their own questions. And 8-year-old Arlo Loyd is done beating around the bush. His question gets right to the point.

ARLO LOYD: Tell people who your loved one is.

VIV: My name is Viv, and my loved one was my brother Tye.

LEMOULT: Viv's mother, Liz Moughan, is standing nearby, listening. Other parents have gone to another room to meet with their own grief counselor, but Viv wants her mom to stay close. Viv's 18-year-old brother died by suicide in August.

LIZ MOUGHAN: Viv's just having a hard time understanding her grief. And so we're trying any avenue possible to try to help her process what happened.

LEMOULT: Moughan says it's incredibly hard to parent a child who's grieving the loss of a brother, while at the same time facing her own grief at losing a child.

MOUGHAN: I could be sad, and Viv could feel OK, and my husband could feel angry. Or, you know, you shuffle all those emotions around and having to support each other while you're all in those different spaces is such a challenge.

(CROSSTALK)

LEMOULT: On top of learning to deal with all those emotions, the camp makes time for fun. The kids have the chance to enjoy the exhibits at the Museum of Science, and then it's back to learning something a little more personal.

WILES: Can someone tell me - maybe a camper could tell me - what coping skills are? Evelyn.

EVELYN: What you say - when you go breathe in and out.

WILES: That's an awesome coping skill - breathing in and out.

LEMOULT: The camp also gives grieving kids a forum to honor a lost loved one. The group decorates candles that will be used in a remembrance later in the day. Arlo Loyd shows his creation to his mom.

ARLO: I like my candle so far.

ALEXIS LOYD: You think Dad would like it?

ARLO: Yeah.

LOYD: I agree.

LEMOULT: Arlo has spelled out dad and added stickers he thinks his father would have liked.

ARLO: His favorite color was brown. And mom found this brown lion, so I put it under dad.

LEMOULT: Arlo's mom, Alexis, says her own mother died when she was 6. And there was nothing like this for her.

LOYD: I mean, I think that I had a pretty traumatic experience. And my whole goal as a mom is to make sure that Arlo doesn't have a traumatic experience as much as possible, right?

LEMOULT: Arlo says it's been good to meet other kids here who are like him.

ARLO: I have friends, but they don't really - they've never really lost somebody. So it's good to have friends who understand.

LEMOULT: Camp Erin Boston's director says that's the point. No one should feel like they're going through this alone. For NPR News, I'm Craig LeMoult in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICK BARBACHANO SONG, "ARBOLITO DIVINO")

RASCOE: If you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICK BARBACHANO SONG, "ARBOLITO DIVINO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Craig LeMoult / GBH