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Kids given avenue to tackle life's painful moments

WILLMAR -- As the children arrived at Camp G.K. Bear Saturday morning, some of them were too shy to talk.

But by mid-morning, they were absorbed with storybooks and picture-drawing about life, death, grief and remembering.

It was the hope of Brenda Wiese that each child could leave at the end of the day with a newly gained measure of comfort and even resilience.

"They can be honest with their feelings here," said Wiese, the coordinator of the Grief Center at Rice Memorial Hospital.

"They can identify their grief and have a safe place to talk about it... It's a day of fun and lots of feelings. They're having fun while working on some tough stuff."

The hospital's Grief Center and Rice Hospice hold the free day-long camp at least twice a year to reach out to kids who've sustained the loss of someone important in their lives.

When it comes to grief, children often are forgotten, Wiese said.

Many adults assume that children are too young to understand death and loss, or that they're too young to be exposed to the meaning of death and what it's like to grieve, she said.

Yet kids "understand more than we give them credit for," she said. "Kids feel all the gamut of feelings that adults do."

The 20 youngsters seated around tables in a classroom at St. Mary's Church on Saturday had seen the loss of siblings, parents and grandparents.

In many cases, these deaths have come tragically or unexpectedly, Wiese said,

"We've had several children who've had multiple losses in just the last year or two," she said.

While rain fell outside, the children watched a video about the cycle of life and death and listened to a story about a boy with a friend who dies.

Crayons scattered across the tables as they drew pictures of happy feelings, sad feelings and favorite memories. Boxes of Kleenex and trained one-on-one volunteers were close by.

"Kids process their grief primarily through play," Wiese said. "They're always thinking about it. They're always focusing on it, but it comes out in play."

An activity that children find especially meaningful is to create a memory box they can decorate with pictures and bring home to fill with mementoes, she said.

Many children keep their memory boxes for years, she said. "One girl went to college this year and took her memory box with her."

She also encourages the children to join in a show-and-tell.

"They love that part," she said. "They get to share and brag about their loved one."

When Deb Wodash's mother died six years ago while under the care of Rice Hospice, she sent her daughters -- then ages 8 and 10 -- to Camp G.K. Bear.

"It's good to talk to other kids who've lost somebody," she said. "They really loved their grandma."

She saw that the experience helped her daughters.

"The memory boxes they made were really important," she said.

Wodash is now a grief camp volunteer, and her daughters have become volunteers too.

"It's just something I thought was really cool," said Alex Wodash, a junior at Willmar High School. "It helps being able to talk about it and being with someone outside your family."

After someone dies, "we often quit talking about that person," Wiese said. "But the tears are there. Sometimes it's nice to share the tears with someone else. That's what the kids like about this. They know someone cares."

It's her hope that the children who attend Camp G.K. Bear can learn that while the pain of loss never fully goes away, it gets better with time.

"It makes them a little more resilient the next time," she said. "It's still just as hard but they know, 'I'll survive this because I survived last time.'"

Children also benefit tremendously from knowing other children have experienced the same losses, she said.

She recalled a little boy who was astonished to meet other children whose father had died.

"To know they're not alone in their grief, to know they're not the only child experiencing this -- you can see the light bulb going on for some of them. It was such a realization to him," she said. "That was the beginning of his healing, I think."