Sunday, March 9, 2008

A place to heal: Camp offers children a path through grief

By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer

He's 11 years old, and he's got an idea for the perfect funeral.
'I want to be locked in a jukebox,' said Nick Fortenberry of Troy. 'I think it would be great, me looking out and grinning at everybody.'
His mother, Cynthia, shook her head and laughed, but older brother Alex said Nick was serious.
'He really does want to be propped up,' Alex said, rolling his eyes in exaggerated exasperation. 'You're just encouraging him by laughing.'
He was addressing Jan Upchurch and Judy Hoelscher, directors of the Rays of Hope Bereavement Camp, an annual event sponsored by the Child Life Department of Scott & White Hospital in Temple.
The group was talking about the value grieving with peers at a meeting on March 7 at the Scott & White cafeteria. This year will mark the Fortenberry boys' fifth time at camp. Their father died in Iraq four years ago. Nick's upbeat, humorous view of his own funeral is perfectly healthy, Ms. Upchurch said.
'It helps children to learn that death is not taboo,' she said. 'You can joke, you can make light. That doesn't devalue the person who was lost.'
Understanding death is no easy task for anybody, said Ms. Hoelscher, the Scott & White chaplain who founded the Rays of Hope program in 2003.
'It's hard for the adult, and it's hard for the child,' Ms. Hoelscher said. 'There's individual healing, and there's healing for the family unit. But how can a grieving adult parent a grieving child? It's hard.'
Children need a safe place where they can grieve with other people like them, other children, she said, describing why she founded the program.
'It's a freeing experience for the children to see that they're not alone,' Ms. Hoelscher said. 'Since their loved one died, they've felt left out, odd. This kind of activity takes the weird away.'
The camp is open to children, ages 7-17, who have lost a parent, sibling, best friend or caregiver. It is not limited to just one visit per child.
'Grieving children have developmental needs. It's never really over,' Ms. Upchurch said. 'Think about the milestones - the first date, first kiss, the next Christmas - when that loved one won't be there. Grief can come back at those times. You can't work through these feelings in just one camp.'
Mrs. Hoelscher said the second and third years are worse than the first year post death.
'The first year is just shock,' Mrs. Hoelscher said. 'The pain comes harder when you're trying to process it.'
Camp activities include horseback riding, leadership exercises, and drama and art sessions.
'We try to let the children find their own way of expressing themselves,' Ms. Upchurch said.
This year Jack Houston, an award-winning children's musician, will be at the camp.
'He'll put the children's words of grief to music,' Ms. Upchurch said. 'It'll be a form of music therapy.'

The Fortenberry brothers
When their daddy died, Alex was 10 and Nick was 8.
Mrs. Fortenberry learned of the bereavement camp through one of the boys' teachers. She thought it could help her sad sons.
'Their emotions were penned up. They didn't know how to say what they wanted,' Mrs. Fortenberry said. 'But gradually, it seemed that the camp lessons taught them how to communicate.'
The boys didn't know what they were supposed to do at camp. They weren't out to learn anything.
'We just want to have friends,' Alex said. 'We wanted to laugh.'
Through the experience of their first camp, the Fortenberry boys learned they could tell their favorite story about their parents and have it not be a sad thing.
'When Dad first met Mom, they were on a date,' starts Nick the entertainer. 'The car broke down, so dad pulls out this big knife and hands it to Mom. He said, 'If I go psycho, then you can just stab me in the back. Ok?''
Both boys roared with laughter while the blushing Mrs. Fortenberry buried her face in her hands.
'See,' Ms. Upchurch interjects. 'Remembering the favorite stories helps keep the person with you. Laughing helps.
'That's right,' Nick said. 'Comedy is my power of healing. I'm always doing everything I can to get a laugh.'
Ms. Upchurch remembers the year she first met Nick.
'Comforting others was the way he went through his emotions,' Ms. Upchurch said. 'Whenever one of the other kids was close to break down, he'd be the first to go up and hug that person.'
Nick was the person to blush this time. His eyes stared down at the table as his counselor talked about him.
'I do it because I know how they're feeling,' Nick said.
'And that's the magic of the camp,' Ms. Upchurch said. 'To get children to relate to each other.' 

Miss Karr
Kristin Karr is 13. She was 4 when her two brothers died in a car crash that she and her parents survived. This year will be her fourth time to attend the camp.
'It's good to go,' she said. 'You get to be with kids who've been through close to the same thing you went through. You don't have to be ashamed to cry.'
She said the camp is fun, even though everyone there has a reason to be sad.
'The games relate how you lost your somebody,' Miss Karr said. 'You take hikes to the top of a hill, and you talk to the person as if the person were still there. You write a note that says what you would say to that person, to replace your last conversation if it was a bad one - and you bury it under a tree.'
Her father, David Karr of Troy, admires the strength of his daughter and is proud of the way she's grown and healed.
'I don't know how the counselors do their jobs,' Karr said. 'Before my sons died, I never would have even considered being involved in something like this. It would be too painful. Doing their jobs, it's a tall order.'
He said the camp improved her daughter's communication skills.
'She's able to talk to you clear,' he said. 'She has her point, and she makes it.'
Miss Karr said she learned much more than that, though.
'I learned it could be worse. I learned I could have lost my parents,' she said. 'I could have been older when it happened, and I could still be crying now.'

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