When Taylor Stepper lost her grandmother when she was 14, she thought she was alone in her grief. Like most teens who suffer the loss of a close relative, Taylor didn’t feel safe talking to her family about her pain. So she held most of it in, even to her HPH Hospice Children’s Assistance Program counselor.
And when that counselor suggested Taylor attend a weekend camp for grieving children, she went reluctantly, not really believing it would make a difference.
But it did. Taylor found solace in kids her own age, who spoke about their pain with words she understood because she was feeling the same way.
Taylor, now 17, revisited the camp earlier this month, a mixed blessing since it took another death to bring her back. This time, she lost her father.
“I didn’t want to come,” she said, “because I hadn’t really talked about my father yet.”
Taylor was among 83 young people, ages 10 to 18, who attended the annual bereavement camp in Lakewood Retreat, east of Brooksville. Each child was recommended by an HPH counselor to attend. And each faced the enormous burden of healing after losing someone special.
HPH’s annual camp for children is designed to help the youngest victims of death deal with their grief.
Bereavement and Children’s Assistance Program manager Laura Finch said each activity the children completed during the recent three-day weekend has an underlying purpose.
“The way I explain it to the kids is that it’s a lot of fun but it’s going to be a lot of healing too,” Finch explained. “And everything we do has a purpose.”
When they arrived Friday evening, the children were assigned to a cabin with peers their own age and gender. They have never met before, which helps them open up without fear of judgment.
The program begins almost immediately and include structured activities, hand-picked for a specific purpose. Some encourage the kids to share their stories. Others involve team-building tasks that help them lose their reserve just enough so they can begin to trust.
They are put through a rigorous schedule that mixes creative tasks with physical exertion, meant to get their minds thinking while their bodies tire.
“When you’re active, it lowers defenses,” Finch explained. “They are able to be more vulnerable and share their feelings.”
Every activity, from Friday night until Saturday evening, led up to the final act. Each child was free to release their feelings in a safe place, many they had kept deep inside, about the loved one they had lost. They put their feelings into a letter to their loved one.
Then, they were led down a path, lit with luminaries, to the lake where each child placed his or her letter into a hand-made nest that was then burned.
“It’s very intense and emotional,” said Finch. Many of the kids then need their counselors to help them work through the emotions that are triggered by the act. And they are encouraged to take all night if they need it to get those feelings out.