Grief Camp: A Reflection of My First Experience Working With Bereaved Children

ACLP Bulletin | Winter 2017 | VOL. 35 NO. 1

Danielle Mollung
BA Student Research Assistant, Tufts University, Boston, MA

Any family can be affected by loss, and children respond in a variety of ways. The opportunity to attend a grief camp allows children to express their emotions in a safe environment where they can receive emotional support from volunteers, grief counselors, cabin leaders, and their new friends. They are provided the support to develop coping strategies and they learn to honor their loved ones in developmentally appropriate ways, while feeling understood rather than alone. 

In most grief camps, children participate in traditional camp activities, boosted by a component of grief education and support. Camp is transformational for campers, enhancing self-esteem and increasing hope for a positive future despite tragic losses, but I also found myself transformed by my experience as a grief camp volunteer. 

As an individual seeking a future in child life, I volunteered for a weekend childhood bereavement camp, hoping to learn how children react to death and gain a sense of how they coped. I became a proud member of the Pink Fish cabin, which hosted four girls, ages 6 to 8. The Pink Fish girls understood why they were at this camp, bluntly asking each other “Who died?” and “How are they dead?” The campers shared about their losses in simple and straightforward ways, such as “My mom is dead of cancer” or “I think my dad died in a car.” I was amazed by their innocence, but also intimidated by the bluntness of their language. Professionally, my main goal was to practice my supportive skills and learn how to say the right thing about a sensitive topic. 

The Pink Fish girls understood why they were at this camp, bluntly asking each other “Who died?” and “How are they dead?” 

I also hoped to add more techniques to my developing child life skills in settings outside of the hospital. My camp experience opened my eyes to the many misconceptions children have about death. It is difficult for me to imagine them grasping the idea of their parent being gone permanently. I had no sense of how much they knew and I learned that the best way to support was to listen. I realized I had no need to “counsel” or directly ask questions, but that my support, presence, and comfort were enough, regardless of how much the children understood or were willing to share.

Some camp activities were traditional camp adventures while others, including a symbolic stone craft, a hand drawn pillowcase, and aromatherapy, were guided by the grief counselors. When all of the campers gathered for the first time, I could feel tension, sadness, and silence in the air. I admired the respect and support seen among the campers during the first activity, which was creating a large memory board honoring all of the campers’ loved ones. Personally, I found their stories to be an immense amount of information to hold. I wanted to cry for the boy who left hyperventilating. I wanted to hug the groups of siblings, as I could imagine their family as a whole. In the back of my mind, I feared that this weekend would be too much for me, but at the same time I wanted to give these campers my all, especially after hearing firsthand what they have been through. At first, I worried I would say the wrong thing or freeze when a child needed comfort. However, I saw the appreciation in campers’ faces when I told them their memories sounded lovely and their artwork honoring their loved ones was “beautiful” and “important.” I learned how to encourage children to be open by reassuring them that they were “special” and “brave” for being present. I found myself naturally repeating these words of encouragement frequently throughout the weekend. 


The most important and reflective activity of the weekend was a luminary ceremony, which featured lanterns honoring the campers’ loved ones floating around the lake. This ceremony was beautiful, and I was awestruck at the composure of the Pink Fish girls, who respectfully sat in silence and held each other’s hands while wrapped in one huge, cozy blanket. Older campers were visibly emotional, but they were quickly supported with hugs from their new friends. After such a heavy ceremony, we were able to let loose at the bonfire and dance party that followed. Dancing in the same room as the memory board created the night before was touching; it went from a room full of tension to a room of relief. Seeing the natural joy and laughter of the campers in front of the pictures of their loved ones compared to their tears and anxiety before was so therapeutic and symbolic for me. I was amazed by the children’s resilience and ability to act and be goofy like the kids they are, giving me hope that they can find a way to do so at home again, too. 

Grief camp taught me how to empathize to a greater extent. It made me realize you cannot always say the right thing or fix sadness, but being present and supportive means more than anything. I had worried it would be uncomfortable to face the reality and permanence of death with these campers, especially the young girls to whom I was assigned, but I learned to not avoid the blunt, harsh words such as “dead.” Instead, I learned to redirect back to the campers and see what they had to say or how they felt about things. I found the easiest way to encourage 6- to 8-year-old campers to express their feelings or share their stories was through arts and crafts. It was easier to ask open-ended questions—who or what a drawing was of, what was taking place, why it was special—to allow the campers to reflect on the happy memories more so than the loss. I was really able to gain insight on what their losses meant to them by how they remembered their loved ones.

I feel more confident in my ability to sit in silence, listen, and hold information regarding loss and sadness without feeling awkward or pressured to say anything. 

Since camp, I find myself more appreciative and grateful for my own family, friends, and opportunities than ever before. I value the new skills and interventions I learned and plan to use them in my own practice someday. This experience gave me insight into approaching loss in any population I end up working with in the future. I feel more confident in my ability to sit in silence, listen, and hold information regarding loss and sadness without feeling awkward or pressured to say anything. Although I may never understand what these kids are feeling or are experiencing at home, I value the short, three-day weekend we had together to try and make things a bit easier. I plan to continue volunteering at this camp and hope to be placed with older girls next year because I am curious to see how the experience affects children at other developmental stages. I wonder if it would be more difficult to sit with older kids’ stories and emotions, since they have a better understanding of the loss and permanence of death. 

I may someday pursue working with this population, but the skills I learned at grief camp will aid me in helping children experiencing loss in any circumstance, whether they are approaching death or are experiencing loss. Having this experience as a foundation for approaching childhood bereavement and for having conversations about death will benefit me in any setting, or even with my own kids someday. Grief camp was an exceptional experience that I recommend for all those pursuing child life, as well as anyone who knows a child who has experienced loss and grief.BulletinArticleBlueIcon